Open daily, 5 to 11:30 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Appetizers $2 to $4.50, Main courses $3 to $9.95.
A lot of style for the money is what you get at La Plaza. Its windows wrap around its Columbia Road corner, adding indoor life to that energetic street scene. The bar always seems to be a party on its way to happening. Giant reproductions of Renoir paintings add the festivity of picnics. And large baskets of flowers inforce the lavishness. In light of the outsize murals, the enormous bunches of flowers and the expanses of floor space, La Plaza greets you with a sense of extravagance. But because that is dispelled when you are seated mere inches away from your neighbor's table, go there for geniality rather than for romance.
And order carefully. Although the menu is small -- one chicken, one pork, one rabbit, one duck, one lamb, three seafood and five variations on steak -- and reasonably priced, with half the dishes under $6, your chances of satisfaction are slim.
If you only want advice on what to order, just skip to the next paragraph; but for skeptics, I will relate the disasters as well. Ceviche was twice dreadful, both times very mushy fish with little flavor other than vinegar and onions. The second time, to make matters worse, it had been held so long that it was fermenting. An alternate appetizer, shrimp with garlic and sherry, was nicely seasoned, but that did not compensate for the shrimp's toughness. Soups had their assets, namely admirable chunks for seafoods and meats in them, but their basic broths were insipid. The main dishes were a ragged parade: simplistic, waterlogged paella which one day bordered on the inedible because its seafood reeked; and duck that, besides being dry and tough, was sauced with an even more simplistic orange sauce that could have served as well over spongecake. Why a Latin restaurant serves quiche is not for me to question, but why this Latin restaurant serves its quiche reheated so that its surface is just short of burned and its edges are curled from the heat, certainly concerns me. The answer is sheer indifference.
There is nothing objectionable about the chicken casserole, as long as your idea of dining out a homey stew floury brown gravy. And filets of flounder here are certainly all right, broiled with a dusting of paprika and tasting fresh. The desserts, too, are acceptable, though no better than the carrot cake, cheesecake and flavorless flan that you can find in dozens of other ordinary restaurants.
Hidden in La Plaza's menu, however, is a treasure. Listed among the appetizers, crabs with scallions, ginger, garlic and sherry cost $4.50 and can keep you happily picking lumps of crabmeat from their shells for the evening, for the platter is so large that the restaurant must be losing money with every bite. The crabs are served as in Chinese restaurants, sauteed with the bodies split in half, the backs separated but included for sucking on the seaonings and picking out bits of roe. The crabmeat is sweet and tender, permeated with the fresh ginger and bits of scallion. The dish makes you wonder why anybody serves crabs steamed and peppered when they can be sauteed and gingered.
But that is an appetizer, large as it is, and you may feel compelled to round out your meal with a main dish. Masitas de puerco asada ($4.95) is the wisest choice, the cubes of pork tender and browned, moistened with a light wash of juice from bitter oranges and contrasting with the crunch and sharpness of raw onion rings. With it comes buttery rice and cumin-scented black beans that should have had their cooking liquid reduced, but are nevertheless savory.
If dessert still tempts you, strawberries with Cointreau-flavored whipped cream ($2.50) are pleasant. The coffee is uniquely weak for a Latin restaurant.
One expects a Latin restaurant to have a good selection of beers, but La Plaza stocked only Heinekens and Schlitz. The small wine list was most distinctive for including a few Chilean wines.
In other words, beyond the attractive appointments and the wonderful ginered crabs, not much is distinctive at La Plaza. The service, as well, is matter-of-fact, not noteworthy in either direction except when the reservations pile up to fill the waiting space late in the evening.
La Plaza is just one more Latin restaurant, improved by a French touch on its wall art and a Chinese touch in its sauteed crabs.