It’s the sweet plantains, those maduros, that are calling to me, for these slices of tender, caramelized fruit will warm on this mid-winter evening. They are a classic side dish in the Latin culinary vernacular, and at Lola Latin Bistro, a fixture in downtown Metuchen, they are so very right with the South American fare that dominates the menu.
Funny, though, even as we lean wintry in our selections, we can’t help but feel seduced by a salad called the Lola Wedge. Darned if it isn’t retro-goes-reckless, a crisp corner of iceberg topped with nibs of chorizo, a generous spray of shredded fresh queso, slices of cherry tomato and a whole lot of a chipotle aioli dressing that puts gloppy Marie’s Thousand Island dressing to shame. What a difference a pop of smoky chile makes.
OK, so this is one guilty pleasure of a salad.
We like it far better than the teetering tower of a crab salad that layers overdressed crab and slightly oily tortilla chips. There’s a zigzag of balsamic glaze, a circular wash of meek mango puree and lackluster guacamole buried underneath it all. Nothing takes charge, nothing connects.
Another starter of Mexican-style pulled pork set in a corn tortilla schmeared with black beans would be better if the meat wasn’t dry. A haberno salsa offered a feisty bite and slivers of pickled onions held promise, but both needed some juice from the pork to play nicely on the plate.
But the basa’s cooked right. A mild fish, it’s given a light crust of pumpkin seeds and set astride a stew of butternut squash. There’s a buttery sauce oozing around it all, a sauce billed to be infused with lobster. Good idea.
The jury’s out on Lola’s special entree on this night—boneless breasts of chicken given a quart (or so) of a golden coconut sauce, then topped with a sloppy chop of onions and peppers. All were sliced at different widths, so you might get a huge bite of onion followed by a mere slip of a pepper, or vice-versa. Uniform slicing and dicing makes a difference. An important difference.
Meanwhile, a pie-like slice of flan is rubbery and a similarly shaped slice of apple crumb “cake” that’s more about sugar and filling and a too-thick crust don’t ring true to the mission of Lola.
What’s fun at Lola— the Lola Wedge, the sweet plantains, the sultry take on basa—is truly fun. The dishes marred by imprecise technique or faulty concept can be fixed by attention to both basics and details, as well as a focus on the core culinary mission.
Lola Latin Bistro, 87 Central Avenue in Metuchen. Open daily for dinner, except for Mondays. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday. 732-548-5652; lolalatinbistro.com.