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CLASSIC sophistication

Some ingredients in a nuevo Latino place like Boca you'd never find in a Cuban restaurant, including truffle oil, sake, gorgonzola, maple mustard, perfect rare tuna and chanterelles. Even goat cheese? Claro.

Many are the same, such as black beans, guava, coconut and string coffee; others should be, like squash, sweet potatoes, fresh asparagus, manchego cheese, habanero peppers, mangoes and vegetarian entrees.

Like all practitioners of "new cuisine," Boca aims to celebrate ethnic flavor, rediscovering traditional ingredients and reinvigorating them with snazzy presentation and eclectic incorporation with ideas from other cultures.

Chef/proprietor Jeanie Pierola, her kitchen crew and designers have done nuevo Latino richly brown, in soft tones from adobe to cafe con leche, with sparkles of high style. Yet they have not lost the one thing as essential as bread from La Segunda: a sense of community, vibrant, familiar and welcoming.

Barely 2 months old, Boca already feels like more than a fashion statement. Although it's drawing show-off dates and adventurous tourists, I'm more impressed at the crowd settling in for celebratory dinners, business deals and club luncheons. At $6 for Cuban sandwiches, Boca's not everyday eating, but it's not too hip for Tampa.

Boca feels like a great pair of new shoes, the kind that become instantly comfortable without losing their new-shoe pride, so you want to take them out on the town and tango all night. Okay, they pinch a little, but you don't want to admit it (unless you're the pinch-and-tell Nibbler). Comfort doesn't contradict Boca's dramatic innovations, it tempts me to repeat visits.

I've already tried a lot and come up with a lot of winners _ new, old and classical _ and only a few I'd discard (the kitchen is also reviewing the hits and misses of the first menu). My favorites range from richly creamed fish and hearty steaks to the lightest and brightest salads.

Appetizers, salads and bocaditos (sandwiches or little bites) make for delicious prospecting in Boca's lode of new flavors, starting with the best bread basket in town, starring coconut chili bread.

Most fun are empanadas, the Spanish turnover, here made of plantains, potatoes or corn meal and filled with everything from crab or seafood picadillo to goat cheese, cooked open-face like pizza, or served on beds of nifty greens. The only one I didn't like was a crab corn pie with a limp crust served on a wonderful salad electrified with a juice of Meyer lemon and a red chili mayo.

The use of fresh herbs and field greens adds crunch and flavor to all salads here, a giant leap forward from 1905.

In a trilogy of soups, Boca's most innovative are the best, like a sweet cold vichyssoise of onion and pineapple and a creamy wonder of portobello mushrooms, spinach and parmesan. The heartbreaking failure in the bunch is black bean, our municipal soup: As served to the Nibbler, beans were al dente and broth thin in flavor and consistency. Que pasa?

Corn relish and guacamole give Thai-style chicken skewers a Latin touch but crab croquettes, an old favorite enriched and updated with a tart cilantro potion and pepper coulis, seem bland at heart.

A traditional Cuban sandwich packed with pork and tart manchego cheese has a French twist, served with a black bean/sherry vinegar dipping sauce (far better than the soup). Nibbler tip: Pepper tapenade would really set off this pork. And I'd love a choice of these great sandwich sides like kimchi cole slaw to polenta fries, sweet potato chips and tempura plantains.

On entrees, Boca's culinary imagination rummages wildly around the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Pacific for olives, beans, mushrooms, curries, sauces and a world of rices and pastas. All are combined with good basic preparations, including exceptional fish cookery.

Delmonico steak, for instance, gets a mustard glaze and basil mashed potatoes, but it's still a finely cooked steak with killer onion rings.

Boca makes cobia, that great white fish, bronzed (blackened with a Spanish accent) and trims it a la gumbo, including great fried okra, while flash-grilled snapper gets Spanish accents of plantain, chorizo and sherry in a mustard mushroom cream sauce. Add veggies like Catalan spinach or roasted squash, and this is heaven.

In the other direction _ and furthest from Boca's roots _ is chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, with mediocre lentils and limp saffron linguine.

Paella, billed as the chef's signature dish, is surprisingly unimaginative; its only distinctions are artichoke hearts, a few plantains and some asparagus spears (forgotten and not grilled, as promised, when they arrived). Paella is not plain in Spain (every city has its own) and shouldn't be here: Boca's could have grouper, duck, gator sausage, garlic chicken, rock shrimp, corn beans and all kinds of vegetables.

Final trimmings _ indeed, whole meals _ are best enjoyed in Havana 58, a patio bar where languid evenings are lightly stirred by tropical jazz and outdoor fans. It's perfect for rich desserts (including Nicaragua's national treat of tres leche, a coarse-grained cake soaked in sweet milk), after-dinner drinks and cigars. The wine list, selection served by bottle and glass, is ample in size and reasonable in price, but the bar is not yet stocked to Nibbler standards: Mount Gay was the best rum and Sandeman's the only port.

The finishing touch in a place like Boca is service, and it already has a warm polish in many stations, particularly at the door and behind the bar, but not at all the tables. Wearing a guayabera does not guarantee grace (especially with black shorts and Doc Martens); I'd rather speed and discreet service be uniform.

Still these are remarkably few, eminently correctable mistakes for a venture so young and ambitious.

This food is far from Tampa's traditional Cuban fare and the new hip-hype Ybor is long removed from the glory days of the cigar rollers and lectors. Yet Boca can give our home cooking new spice and a sophisticated place in its old neighborhood.

WEEKEND NIBBLER

Boca & Havana 58

1930 Seventh Ave.

Ybor City, Tampa

241-2622

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5 to midnight Friday-Saturday (bar open later)

Reservations: Recommended

Full bar

Credit cards: MC, V, AE, D DC

Wheelchair access: Floor level entry, restrooms adapted

No smoking in restaurant

Prices: Lunch, $4.97 to $7.97; dinner entrees, $10.97 to $17.97; children's menu available

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