Flamingo’s: Holy seafood guac!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Far more sophisticated than its location and modest exterior suggest, Flamingo’s Seafood, which opened in Mount Prospect in September, brings a new level of Mexican dining to the Northwest suburbs. While upscale spots like Frontera Grill and ¡Salpicon! have dressed up this cuisine in Chicago for decades, and with newer restaurants such as Fonda del Mar and Sol de Mexico continuing the urban theme of upscale, contemporary and elegant Latin fare, we haven’t seen this kind of high-end, south-of-the-border food outside the city before.

Flamingo's corner building (the remodeled former Yummy’s Pizza & Gyros) encloses a long, narrow dining room lined with light wood, brick and tile, offering seating at knotty pine tables and a half dozen narrow booths. A fanciful fresco by Martin Ramos, featuring a flock of the restaurant’s namesake birds, spans a steely open kitchen down one long side of the room, above a row of clocks set to times in various international zones. At one end, a bar offers a few stools and displays an impressive collection of tequilas. More of Ramos' charming paintings of fairies and flamingos hang throughout.

As at most suburban restaurants, the ambience and service lean casual, with the affable waitstaff dressed in adorable pink golf shirts adorned with embroidered flamingos.

Chef Jorge Almaraz, who’s clocked time with Rosemont's Rosewood restaurant and Villa Park’s Supreme Lobster & Seafood Company, commands the kitchen. He and his crew craft an ambitious, delicious menu of fresh, Mexican-inspired seafood dishes and present them in generous portions, beautifully arranged and garnished on lovely, modern Villeroy & Boch chinaware. Prices suit the freshness and quality of the fish and elegance of the presentations here, with entrees averaging about $23.

To start, diners get a complimentary basket of blue-corn chips served with a little dish of delightful, tart fish ceviche and a second bowl of creamy, avocado-laced salsa verde. Most dishes come accompanied by crisply grilled, lightly garlicky baguette slices.

Flamingo’s is a seafood lovers’ eatery with scant choices for landlubbers. On the appetizer list, for example, there’s only guacamole — but what a guacamole it is! Made to order; seasoned to your specifications for spiciness; chunky with sliced radishes, diced tomato and cilantro; and mounded high in a marmol-stone molcajete. Of course, it’s even better if you upgrade to the version with fresh crabmeat mixed in. You also can get your guacamole mixed with shrimp.

Fresh crab also fills an admirable crab cake, seared and served with smoky guajillo-chili sauce and candy-sweet roasted corn. The garlicky langostinos a la plancha, a platter full of split and pan-roasted fresh water king prawns, tender in their head-on shells, make another winning starter.

Other choices include coctele campechana, a chilled mixture of cooked shrimp, octopus and raw oysters in tomato sauce with chopped avocado, onion and cilantro; fresh bluepoints on the half shell; and calamares empanisados fritos, fried squid with tequila-chipotle sauce.

Don't miss the crema de langosta, a big bowl of creamy lobster bisque, lightly seasoned with chipotle chilies and garnished with a generous helping of lobster meat. Two entree soups — siete mares, or “seven seas,” filled with shrimp, clams, scallops, oysters, fish, mussels and crab legs, and shrimp soup — also figure on the menu.

Entrees range from relatively simple fish options like filete de tilapia a la diabla — about four big, pan-fried fish fillets, perfectly cooked and coated in flavorful, spicy pepper sauce on a mound of vegetable-studded rice, to more complex creations such as the gorgeously presented brocheta de camaron y chorizo en salsa aguacate — large marinated shrimp and chunks of slightly dry sausage interspersed with red onion and chili pepper slices, drizzled with mild chipotle sauce and plated with confetti rice, a colorful melange of matchstick vegetables and a squiggle of avocado cream, like a party on a plate.

Hearty eaters might want to select the whole red snapper. It comes in several different styles, but do consider the delectable Veracruzano. In this version, the plate-sized crispy fish comes smothered in a zesty sauce incorporating tomatoes, olives, capers, green onions and peppers.

Those with lighter appetites can get the fish tacos, a trio of sauteed tilapia filets in fresh corn tortillas, dressed with lightly spiced chipotle mayonnaise and pico de gallo, and accompanied by white rice and crunchy jicama slaw.

More unusual entrees include filete de matarraya en poblano chile salsa, skate wing in poblano cream sauce and a Valencia-style seafood paella for two. The four non-fish entrees are habanero-glazed chicken; a double-cut pork chop marinated in guajillo-chili honey; filet mignon; and a New York strip steak.

Desserts, made in-house, include a very good pastel de tres leches, or three-milk cake, moist but not soggy, garnished with fresh strawberries and caramel and strawberry sauces; a nice coconut flan; and a thin, dense pay de queso, a Mexican-style cheesecake drizzled with cinnamony berry sauce.

Besides tequilas and margaritas, Flamingo's bar serves a list of tropical drinks, including an excellent, not-too-sweet version of the coco loco, a rum and creme of coconut concoction.

The service is friendly and reasonably efficient, if not quite up to the level of the food, which deserves better than “keep your fork.”

Flamingo's Seafood

1590 S. Busse Road, Mount Prospect, (847) 364-9988,

Cuisine: Ambitious seafood with Mexican flavors

Setting: Wood-lined corner building with an upscale, casual vibe

Price range: Appetizers $4 to $15; salads and soups $6 to $15; entrees $14 to $36; desserts $5

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Accepts: American Express, MasterCard and Visa; reservations

Also: Full bar; free parking; daily lunch specials; children's menu available