Restaurant review: Plantain Café

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

You can have it made in the shade now that Plantain Cafe serves its righteous Cuban-style food on an awning-covered, three-table patio. That's where I recently positioned myself while sipping some citrusy and refreshingly dry white sangria from a stemless wine glass ($7; there's also a small beer list that includes $4 Coronas and Pacificos) as I pretended I was somewhere tropical.

That silly illusion is more easily clung to inside the cute little restaurant, aided by Plantain's excellent music, sultry Havana street-scene photographs, lemon-and-lime-colored walls and believable grub. It'd been a while since I'd dined there (too long), so a few menu items were new to me.

Two of these are attractive three-bite starters called Plantain Rolls. Looking like Cuban sushi, they're flavorful, garlic-kissed black beans and rice enveloped in rings of crispy plantain chips topped by either juicy pulled pork with a dab of mustard (Lechon, $3.75) or pot-roasty beef (Ropa Vieja, $3.95). Though I might give the edge to the beef, both are delicious if somewhat unwieldy to eat.

I had no problem polishing off another relative newcomer to the menu, Plantain's Fried Chicken ($11.75). Here, "fried chicken" translates into a plate of the best chicken nuggets around. Encased in crackery, thickish and black peppery jackets were super-juicy and tender bits of white meat infused with the flavor of fresh lime. As with all entrees, good and soupy black beans ladled over white rice plus fried sweet plantains (i.e. "maduros") provide strong accompaniment.

Those sides reappeared with the Seafood Plate ($12.25). This OK entree featured a simply cooked and simply seasoned tilapia fillet (nothing more exotic than paprika) and four clean-tasting, deep-fried butterflied shrimp a bit lost in heavy breading.

Vaca Frita ($11.75; think pan-fried pot roast strands and onions) is an old Plantain favorite, and though a recent rendition was oily and a tad chewy, it still had wonderful flavor. An appreciated splash of lime juice ignited its soulful charm and cut its richness some.

Served with long, thin and crispy plantain chips (i.e. "mariquitas"), the Cuban sandwich ($10) is another Plantain golden oldie, and with good reason. A properly toasted and smashed - therefore flavor intensified - sub-like roll held deli ham, obviously house-roasted pulled pork, melted Swiss cheese plus pickles and mustard. If the ensemble comes off a little dry (it can happen), just ask for more pickles and mustard.

Plantain's colorful Burrito Bowls allow diners to spear through its lively parade of flavors a la a salad. Topped with squiggles of sour cream and pureed avocado, the pleasant chicken version ($10.25) combines this place's good-if-ubiquitous rice and beans with sprinkled cilantro, diced tomatoes, grated orange cheese, the occasional cabbage leaf and corn kernel plus plenty of tangy, cumin-scented, spice-rubbed poultry chunks.

I recommend you end your meal here with egg on your face - or at least in it - by ripping into Plantain's formidably crafted, wiggly and custardy homemade flan ($5.25). This burnt sugar syrup-anointed treat - which is big enough for sharing (unless I'm eating it) - is best enjoyed with a Cafe con Leche ($4; aka Cuban coffee, aka sweet Cuban espresso). With fare like that, Gay Street momentarily seemed closer to a dreamy Caribbean seascape than it obviously is.

Plantain Cafe

77 E. Gay St., Downtown

614-464-CUBA (2822)