5080 Pontchartrain Blvd., New Orleans
THREE STARS (out of four)
It was hard to miss this restaurant taking shape as new construction rose on a prominent spot near the crossroads of New Orleans and Metairie. The address had long been home to a Semolina restaurant, and the same restaurant developers are behind this one. But Mizado is a much different concept, one that explores pan-Latin flavors.
The feel here is modern, inside and out. Whitewashed on the outside, dimly-lit and buzzing with energy on the inside, it seems to take more design cues from a Miami club than a New Orleans restaurant. Booths are the better option than tables, which can feel lost in the shuffle of the busy room. There is a large bar, though it's better suited for drinks and socializing than dinner. Traffic noise from the interstate dominates what could otherwise be a nice patio in front.
The staff use iPad devices to relay orders from your table to the kitchen, which makes for very speedy service. Sometimes it's too speedy. One waitress may arrive with your appetizers before the bar even has a chance to look at your drink order. But when things are flowing right it does make for an efficient operation. Staff should be more knowledgeable about the menu, however, which is not always intuitive. A little more guidance or outline of what's to come would be helpful. The valet parking service is swift and professional.
Starting with salsa is an easy call at many Latin-style restaurants, but here that entails a choice of seven varieties. Roja is the closest to conventional tomato salsa, though I like the orange and carrot-flavored habanero better. Get a sampler of three and make sure to include a creamy version, especially one with smoked almonds and cashew. Traditional guacamole is mixed tableside, and there's an Indian version with banana and dates that is interesting but also pretty sweet.
The menu continues with a section of botanas, which you could make the case for calling appetizers, small plates or, in a few cases, modest entrees. The duck tamale qualifies in the last category, topped with heaping strands of duck meat, white farmers cheese, mellow crema and a pineapple/jalapeno glaze.
A true centerpiece of the Mizado menu is ceviche and a Peruvian-style raw fish preparation called tiradito. You need to try at least one to really experience what this place is after, and if you like sushi you can probably relate to these unconventional dishes. Tuna, salmon or scallops are each marinated (but otherwise uncooked) for ceviches lavishly dressed with herbs and fruit, peppers and juices. For tiradito, thin, raw slices of tuna or salmon are more artfully arranged under similar ingredients for dishes that are impressive to admire and to eat.
After that onslaught of appetizers, the entree options boil down to a few large plates and a long roster of tacos. Some of the tacos are conventional enough (chorizo, roasted chicken, fried fish) but you assemble them yourself at the table. The other side of the taco list is more novel, with grilled scallops and bacon filling one example, pulled duck and melon salsa in another and cool, barely-charred tuna wrapped in Romaine lettuce leaves for a lighter rendition. For a more substantial and straightforward meal, head to the grilled redfish with chimichurri or the grilled Cornish hens.
The full bar has a wide assortment of cocktails that start with Latin essentials of rum and tequila but branch out from the usual recipes. Try the carrot and ginger margarita or the red pepper mojito, which looks like a bloody Mary but has a flavor all its own. Latin American bottles dominate the moderately-priced wine list and there's a sideline in sake too.
Individual items at Mizado are reasonable enough. Salsas are $3, trios of tacos are $13, ceviches are $10 to $14. But most people will want to order a number of dishes, so expect the bill to add up. A normal dinner with drinks will probably run about $80.
This is not your typical Tex-Mex cantina, but rather a wide-ranging, ambitious exploration (and often combination) of Latin American flavors from the islands to the mountains. Purists looking for one particular stripe of Latin flavor will not find much stable ground here, but this restaurant seems more interested in staking out its own turf anyway. It's a fun, casual place for meals you can't find anywhere else.