26 W. Montauk Hwy., Hampton Bays
AMBIENCE Bright and festive dining room
ESSENTIALS: Monday to Thursday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Street parking, full bar, takeout, sit-down, accepts reservations.
There is a certain level of comfort in forecasting a menu based on a restaurant’s name. But at Karamba, which bills itself as “tropical,’’ you have to peruse the menu before realizing that chef Carlos Cortes, born in Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, is pulling from a wide swath of Latin cultures.
He’s elevating rustic comfort food while offering raw seafood dishes appropriate for summers on the East End.
The dining room has soft pink beadboard walls with windows and doors that let daylight and breezes pour in, making its tropical theme apparent. A wall separates the formal dining room from the bar.
Many of the favorites at Karamba are simple dishes with a handful of ingredients that rely on solid technique. Most of the appetizers hit comfort notes: creamy guacamole, salty nachos or rich, baked clams (almejas al horno). Each component of the five golf ball-sized empanada appetizer was well executed with highly seasoned meat, and potatoes cooked to a nearly creamy consistency, wrapped in a pouch still hot from the fryer without being overtly oily.
Cortes uses a strong punch of garlic and oil in the garlic shrimp (camarones al ajillo), adding a glossy, fragrant shellac to about a dozen medium-sized shrimp cooked just past translucent. Use the shrimp to top the equally noteworthy plate mate of fried plantains. Each of these coaster-sized pieces of banana are smashed instead of sliced, all the better because they offer more surface area to develop a golden crust and host salt. The crispy shell covering the crabcake encased a flavorful filling that, unfortunately, had an odd mouth feel closer to whipped cream than lump crab.
The starters section of the menu includes soups, like the one with Spanish-style tripe, while the raw bar has a mix of clams, oysters, shrimp and seafood cocktail that includes a half lobster. From the 12-item-deep section of burgers, sandwiches and quesadillas, the Cuban stands out. The sandwich has the right amount of salt from the ham and pickles, and melted cheese from the slice of Swiss, but the star is the slow-roasted, succulent, shredded pork. Order it without mayo to keep things traditional.
The entrees tend to showcase more of the pan-Latin feel. Cortes’ kitchen has a delicate hand with seafood, as shown with the rice and shrimp (arroz con camarones). The dish has a mound of Spanish rice flavored with bits of shrimp and peppers mixed in, then topped with a pair of charred tails-on shrimp. More plantains come along for the ride. From Cuba is a shredded beef stew (ropa vieja) that is tender and flavored with bell pepper, onions, tomato, garlic and acidity from olives and white wine.
For dessert, the tres leches cake, a popular finisher in places such as Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guatemala, is a moist — but not wet — square of sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk, then chilled to be easily sliced. It has a rich, creamy texture with a clean cream, sugar and cinnamon flavor. The flan, while appropriately silky and jiggly, was topped with a caramel sauce that sat on the heat for a little too long, taking on a slightly burned taste.
Along with all this traditional food are over-the-top cocktails, the likes of which you might see at a Sandals resort. What the piña colada lacks in rum flavor it makes up for in presentation — it’s served in a full-size, hulled out pineapple topped with whipped cream. The lineup of sangrias and mojitos are less of a spectacle.
Overall, Karamba manages to make its festive atmosphere and traditional Latin fare square nicely with its tropical aspirations.