Entrées are large and filling, but don’t always hit their mark. Our favorites were two specials: pollo verde with malanga gnocchi ($17.95) and smoked churrasco ($18.95). With these you see what Nuevo Latino cuisine is supposed to be about. The churrasco is a marinated steak, cooked rare, flash-smoked, sliced in to inch-long sticks and stacked like Lincoln Logs on a vertical dish, with a nearly vertical arugula salad (and the same slightly sweet dressing and white cheese). The sauce includes panela (raw sugar), so the flavor is unusual but enticing. If you don’t have an arepa handy, order a side dish of tostones ($4.25), twice-fried starchy plantains served with a sweet garlic sauce. As tostones go, these are among the thinnest and crispest available. The chicken is marinated and coated in a peppery adobo, nicely grilled, and then plated with a wild-mushroom cream sauce and gnocchi made from Malaga yams, an even purer starch than potatoes. As a result, the gnocchi are slightly heavier than the Italian ones, but similarly soft and starchy — a fine foil for sauce. The chicken is a Statler breast, boned with the first wing section sticking up.
You can get the same chicken served adobo-style ($13.75) with some extra grilled skin and a grilled scallion on top. We had a special side dish of grilled asparagus ($5) that was very precisely cooked and served with a kind of garlic butter. On the traditional side, there’s the pabellón criollo ($12.95), a mixed plate of shredded, overcooked beef; a lot of those smoky black beans; chunks of fried, sweet plantain; and oily Caribbean-style rice.
Orinoco features imported Latin American beers, fruit drinks, and — only at the Brookline location — mixed drinks, starting with a classic mojito ($8.50) loaded with crushed mint. It wasn’t as sweet as they make them in Cuba, but interestingly dry with white rum. Wines by the glass are mostly South American, but didn’t show well, either because the bottles had been opened earlier, or because of small glasses filled nearly to the top. I preferred the 2005 Santa Ema carmenere ($7.50/glass; $25/bottle), which was merlot-like, but thin and a little hot with alcohol. The 2006 Alamos malbec ($8/$31) was even thinner and hotter at our meal. When chilled, it’s usually a pretty drinkable malbec.
There are only two desserts, one of which is a torta fluida (molten chocolate cake, $4.95) that must be ordered 15 minutes ahead. Given that it is 100 percent Venezuelan dark chocolate, some of the original chocolate on the planet, it might be worth the wait, if you didn’t wait in line. The quesillo (flan, $4.25) was granular but good. Decaf coffee is available, but it’s only fair.
Service at Orinoco is wildly enthusiastic, as it should be in a restaurant that jams up even on weeknights. One of our servers was a student from Mexico, another an American guy, both very knowledgeable and fired up about the food and drink. The crowd is young but smart.
The restaurant has quite a lot of fun décor for such a small room. One wall, for instance, features old family photos from Venezuela. Plus, there are folk-art dolls with long faces, hammocks, mugs, a partial tin ceiling, and devil masks from Carnival. It’s crowded and loud, but in an entertaining way. And if you can’t get in, you won’t go hungry at Matt Murphy’s or Pomodoro, or at nearby Minsok or several other small restaurants in Brookline Village.
Robert Nadeau can be reached atRobtNadeau@aol.com.