Two new Latin-influenced restaurants are worlds apart.

Spanish Lesson 

Two new Latin-influenced restaurants are worlds apart.

For an interesting contrast in restaurant styles, compare the recently opened Poco's Latin American Grille (see review, page 39) with another new addition to the scene, the Latin-influenced Matadors (1815 West 39th Street). Poco's is intimate and tasteful. Matadors is chaotic and irritating.

After a second visit to Matadors, I'm still trying to decide whether to give it a full-length review. Honestly, the place isn't terrible, but it still doesn't have its act together, leading to some unintentional hilarity. One night with Lillis and Bob, for example, our pretty blond-haired server was friendly and attentive but so dizzy that at one point I asked her whether she had just started working in the dining room. She nodded.

Blondie spent most of our meal shaking her head and running from our table to the kitchen. What was the empanada de la noche, I asked her. "I don't know. I better go ask," she said and scampered away. She scurried back a few minutes later to report: "It's stuffed with beef and peppers."

I ordered several more hot tapas, including the carne a la Piedra, described on the menu as "marinated beef tenderloin slightly seared and cooked on a rock at your table."

Blondie looked puzzled. "I'm not sure we have that tonight. I better ask." And off to the kitchen she dashed. She returned quickly, looking triumphant. "Yes, we do have it tonight."

Ten minutes later, she returned again, looking crestfallen. "Oh, please don't get mad at me, but the cook doesn't speak English, and she didn't understand me. We don't have the carne after all."

I wasn't mad, but any feelings of amor we might have had for Matadors were fading fast, particularly when the food arrived. The fried calamari was excellent, but the accompanying orange-colored romesco sauce was tasteless. The sautéed mushrooms in a sherry butter sauce were pretty tasty, and we might have sopped up the sauce -- if we'd been given some bread, like the diners at three other nearby tables. The pan-seared scallops "in white wine butter sauce" tasted as if they'd been drenched in cheap vodka instead. And bizarrely, a very good chocolate flan was served with long-handled teaspoons.

A few nights later, I saw Blondie again, modeling her buns in a see-through pantsuit at a downtown art show. She said she didn't work at Matadors anymore and claimed that she'd received "almost no training." But one of the owners told me he had to let her go -- proving that he's at least trying to make dining there less of a ... bullfight.

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