October 3, 2005 | Ask Gael

Give me a new reason to go downtown

        Aarón Sanchez pops out of the kitchen at Centrico with the same flirtatious sweetness he radiated as an adolescent checking coats and kissing ladies’ hands for his mom at Zarela on Second Avenue. Now he’s an Iron Chef, a matinée idol, boss of the range at Paladar, and Drew Nieporent’s partner-protégé here. New York–raised Sanchez has his own Mexican signature, distinct from Mom’s. Plantain deliciously stuffed with smoky beans and drizzled with crema fresca is definitely an original. Cactus salad fronts nutty pan-seared scallops and also plays against juicy slices of adobo steak. Garlic-lime-chipotle rub makes a tangy grilled chicken. Tonight’s halibut is enlivened with a scintillating dip into its lime, cilantro, and serrano-chile sauce. The pow of his mole poblano overwhelms perfectly cooked pork tenderloin, but on another night, the spare ribs are first-rate. In an homage to his family, Sanchez grills and slices chicken thighs to serve with sweet plantains. For me, portions seem small and the guacamole lacks kick, but I love the attitude. Our server is so smiley and eager, I’m guessing she’s fresh from a beauty pageant. “You must try our molten-chocolate cake,” she says. Good advice. Could this be weekend bridge-and-tunnel? Even the Saturday-night crowd looks cool.

212 W. Broadway at Franklin St. 212 431 0700