On Menus, the Ticket Is Nuevo Latino
By ERIC ASIMOV
NEW YORK -- For years, trend-spotters have trotted out the same old prediction:
American food will be the Next Big Thing in New York restaurants. It's a sleeping giant, they
would say, coming any day now. Any day.
Well, look around
you. From the basket of steaming arepas that arrives with the menu at Orinoco,
a new Venezuelan restaurant on the Upper East Side, to the grilled Argentine skirt steak served at
Ideya in SoHo, the next big thing is finally here.
In the last year,
restaurants offering South American and Latin American foods have opened
Manhattan, engulfing diners in an avalanche of enticingly poetic terms like chimichurri, sancocho and
parrilla (which, for the uninitiated, are a tangy Argentine herb sauce, a soupy stew and mixed
grill). Some of these new restaurants specialize in the food of a single country, like Cuba, Brazil or
Argentina. But most are selling hybrid cuisines, calling their restaurants pan-Latin or even pan-American,
combining the foods not just of South and Central America but of North America and the Caribbean, too.
trend, which began slowly a couple of years ago with several Brazilian
Argentine steakhouses, has surged ahead in the last few months, with the opening of restaurants like
Orinoco and Ideya as well as Campo, Casa and L-Ray in Greenwich Village, Bolivar on the Upper
East Side and Calle Ocho on the Upper West Side.
"I was disappointed
that it took so long, but to see it happen like this is very exciting,"
Rodriguez, the chef and owner of Patria, the pioneering nuevo Latino restaurant on Park Avenue
South. Rodriguez's reinterpretations of Latin American dishes have made him something of a
godfather of contemporary Latin American cooking.
to jump on the pan-Latin express are now peppering Rodriguez with calls
in finding chefs who are familiar with the idiom, which can vary tremendously from the
European-derived cuisine of Argentina to Peru's pre-Columbian emphasis on corn, grains and
seafood to Brazil's unique African-Portuguese-Caribbean blend.
The demand for
Latin American ingredients has shot up, too. "Oh yeah," said Vito Latilla,
president of the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, a leading wholesale produce purveyor. "Yuca, plantains,
tomatillos, it goes on unbelievably. From years back it's tripled. Now everybody is buying yuca and
jicama and all the related items."
The truth, of
course, is that South and Central American restaurants have always existed
York City. Strolling the streets of Jackson Heights or Corona in Queens is like a trip to the Andes,
with extended families sitting down at neighborhood Argentine spots like El Gauchito for huge
platters of ribs, sausages, beef hearts and sweetbreads, or at Tierras Colombianas for a huge, thin
steak, served with a fried egg on top and puffy fried pork skin on the side. On certain summer
weekends, you can even find grilled cuy, a prize Ecuadorean specialty otherwise known as guinea
You will not
find beef hearts, fried eggs or guinea pigs at the new Manhattan restaurants,
will find cocktails and colorful tropical drinks galore. These are not uncertain nooks opened by
recent immigrants offering a warm bit of home, but carefully considered, well-financed businesses
opened by restaurateurs schooled in the intricacies of the Manhattan market. Some of the new
places, in fact, have simply dislodged restaurants whose once-trendy concepts have waned.
The Santo Family
Group, for example, replaced the aging Arizona 206 with Bolivar after deciding
that "comida pan-americana," as they call it, was a concept better suited to the Bloomingdale's
neighborhood than a 16-year-old Southwestern formula. On Broadway near New York University,
Ashley Smith, an owner of the popular East Village restaurants Opaline and Radio Perfecto, was
brought in to reconstitute Bayamo, a Chinese-Latin fixture past its heyday, as Bayamo Nuevo,
offering Cuban food presented, as Smith says, "so it's user-friendly and exciting, but respectful of
On Columbus Avenue,
where the restaurant Main Street once dished up family-style platters of
meatloaf and mashed potatoes, there is now a stylish new pan-Latin restaurant, Calle Ocho, where
yuca and malanga are the tubers of choice. While some of these ingredients may sound unfamiliar to
Upper West Siders, the menu places them in context, describing bistec with fried yuca, for example,
as "Cuban-style steak frites."
four owners, Jeff Kadish, Spencer Rothschild, Steve Scher and Paul Zweben,
previously succeeded with two Rain restaurants, which follow a pan-Asian formula, and with the
upscale fusion restaurant Union Pacific. They were seeking a jump-start for Main Street when they
latched on to the pan-Latin theme. "We always want to be in the forefront of new tastes and
restaurants," Rothschild said.
To take charge
of the kitchen, they hired Alex Garcia, who had been a sous-chef at Patria.
perhaps anticipating the pan-Latin wave a little too early, had made the leap with his own pan-Latin
restaurant, Erizo Latino, three years ago, but the restaurant closed in early 1998.
Now, he says,
after some initial concern over how his food would be received on the Upper
he is beginning to relax. "This is doing great," he said. "They are really ready for it."
With dishes like
lobster ceviche, duck with calabaza squash and orange salsa, and Peruvian
chowder with achiote oil, Garcia's menu is a creative blend in which new ingredients and techniques act
as garnishes for the comforting and the familiar. Offerings like Dominican seafood stew and rum-glazed
shrimp are delicious but hardly challenging to norteamericanos.
to work on the Upper West Side?" Rothschild asked. "We didn't put in the
dishes, the heavy stews, the dishes with lots of beans."
In truth, few
of these restaurants pretend to offer authentic cuisines. Lard and palm
copiously in South America, are replaced with olive oil, just as the range of organ meats is
represented by the occasional sweetbread. The menu at Bolivar, for example, is heavy on grilled
meat, familiar fish and hearty soups, occasionally with exotic adornments. "Sushi-grade" tuna is
served with a yuca crust. Mussels are steamed in corn beer, an ancient Peruvian beverage, while
sauteed foie gras is served on an arepa.
"A lot of our
menu is South American steakhouse," said Andrew D'Amico, the executive
Bolivar. "A lot I would describe as South American comfort food. We have interesting things on the
menu, but it's not a stretch."
The clear, direct
flavors and the emphasis on simplicity are part of the appeal of the pan-Latin
restaurants, which generally take pains to set themselves apart from the more complex nuevo Latino
formulations of Rodriguez at Patria.
At Campo on Greenwich
Avenue, Steven Picker, the owner and chef, offers what he calls "country
cuisine of the Americas." He fuses some of the ingredients of South and Central America with the
techniques and sensibilities of North America to produce dishes like mildly spiced cod, steamed in a
banana leaf and served with sweet coconut rice.
"It's a backlash
to opulent eating," he said. "There's something about Latin America in
psyche that feels homespun, that feels of the earth. Americans feel it's approachable. It's rustic,
hearty and generous."
Anya von Bremzen,
the author of "Fiesta: A Celebration of Latin Hospitality" (Doubleday,
said the fascination with pan-Latin food is part of a wider social interest in Latin and South America.
She likened the surge in restaurants to the rise of Latin music. "Salsa went from the expression of
Puerto Ricans living in the barrio to this highly engineered, slick production, and I see the same thing
happening with food," she said.
an owner of Ideya in SoHo, sees rise in interest in Latin music and New
life as crucial to the rise of the pan-Latin restaurants. "In the last two or three years, it seems that all
the different clubs and lounges in New York City were doing salsa nights," she said. "I felt there was
a train taking off, and I wanted to jump on it."
in New York, like Pampa and Chimichurri Grill in Manhattan and Sur in
Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, have been wildly popular, but does the heavily meat-oriented Argentine
cuisine, derived largely from European settlers, have any relation to, say, the pre-Columbian foods of
Peru? Is the term pan-Latin any more meaningful than pan-European?
"The basic thing
that ties the cuisines together is the language, but they also share ingredients,"
Rodriguez said, and Ms. Von Bremzen agreed, adding that combining the cuisines may be a
"I think the
individual cuisines might lack the sex appeal to elevate them from the
hole in the wall,"
Don't tell that
to Tom Atkinson and Miriam Cordoba of Orinoco, which opened in mid-December
on the Upper East Side. While Orinoco bills itself as offering the cuisine of South America, its
concentration is on Venezuela, where Ms. Cordoba grew up. Ms. Cordoba, who was a sous-chef
under Garcia at Erizo Latino, had been working at Pacifico, a seafood restaurant that was one of
several places that Atkinson and a partner own. Business at Pacifico was slow, except at Sunday
brunch, when the owners allowed Ms. Cordoba to put together a Venezuelan menu. "We figured we
were on to something," Atkinson said. So they closed Pacifico and opened Orinoco.
With dishes on
its menu like fried green plantains with stewed salt cod, and venison stew
eggplant and potatoes, Ms. Cordoba makes less of an effort than some other places to tailor her
food to North Americans. Yet she presents her food with art and style. "My food is not nuevo
Latino," she said emphatically. "It is typical regional food from Venezuela."
For Ms. Kuznick,
who is half Brazilian, and her partner in Ideya, Lauren Small, who grew
Miami, their menu is "a contemporary interpretation of Latin American food."
And what does
that mean? ''We make it less fattening," she said. Her menu, put together
Ideya's chef, Christopher Rios, includes dishes like roasted chicken with chorizo hash and whipped
yuca, and cocoa-cinnamon dusted breast of duck with stuffed plantains and a poblano-red wine
restaurants will become long-term fixtures or simply flavors of the month,
Yorkers have clearly widened their appetites in the last year. And the ingredients themselves may be
the restaurants' most important legacy.
everybody know what malanga is, what ceviche is," said Garcia of Calle
don't know if all the restaurants will stay, but the ingredients will stick."
Here are some
of the pan-Latin and South American restaurants that have opened in New
the last year or so, along with six that serve classic South American cuisine. All are informal and
most are moderately priced, with main courses costing $10 to $20.
704 Broadway (East Fourth Street), (212) 475-5151. The longtime
Latin-Chinese hybrid has been reconstituted as a strictly Cuban restaurant.
East 60th Street, (212) 838-0440. A large and seductive menu, a little
expensive than the others, featuring soups, stews and ceviches, and plenty of steaks and chops.
Calle Ocho, 446
Columbus Avenue (81st Street), (212) 873-5025. A handsome, atmospheric
dining room with a sophisticated pan-Latin menu.
Campo, 89 Greenwich
Avenue (West 12th Street), (212) 691-8080. A pleasant, relaxed restaurant
with rural decor, serving an excellent breakfast as well as dinner.
Casa, 72 Bedford
Street (Commerce Street), (212) 366-9410. A small, friendly restaurant
offers Brazilian country food.
606 Ninth Avenue (43rd Street), (212) 586-8655. A small Argentine restaurant
specializing in empanadas, fish and especially beef.
Ideya, 349 West
Broadway (Broome Street), (212) 625-1441. SoHo style (and prices) embrace
creative pan-Latin menu.
L-Ray, 64 West
10th Street, (212) 505-7777. A loud and lively bar and restaurant that
what it calls "Gulf Rim cuisine." The chef is Aaron Sanchez, son of Zarela Martinez of Zarela.
Madison Avenue (33d Street), (212) 213-4700. Well-executed pan-Latin food
go. An easy way to dip into the cuisine.
Second Avenue (78th Street), (212) 717-2204. A sedate South American
restaurant specializing in Venezuelan cuisine.
Pampa, 768 Amsterdam
Avenue (98th Street), (212) 865-2929. Busy, loud but modest Argentine
Sonora, 222 East
39th Street, (212) 297-0280. Manhattan-style pan-Latin, where malanga and
mojito sauce coexist with foie gras and red-wine reductions.
Sur, 232 Smith
Street (Butler and Douglass Streets), Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; (718)
A new Argentine restaurant where the focus, naturally, is on meat.
These six restaurants are more reminiscent of South America than they are of New York City:
Coco Roco, 392
Fifth Avenue (Sixth Street), Park Slope, Brooklyn; (718) 965-3376. Authentic
foods of Peru, including a selection of ceviches, excellent roasted chicken and grilled snapper and
terrific canchas, roasted corn kernels that were a snack of the Incas.
18 de Julio,
77-05 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens, (718) 429-5495. Like Argentina,
Uruguay is a carnivore's paradise, and this grill and butcher shop will satisfy any craving for beef.
94-60 Corona Avenue (94th Street), Corona, Queens, (718) 271-8198. A tiny
storefront Argentine restaurant and butcher shop where the most popular dish is the mixed grill,
which includes skirt steak, sausages, sweetbreads and beef hearts.
La Portena, 74-25
37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens, (718) 458-8111. This Argentine grill
popular and packed. Besides steaks and grilled meats, there is an entire Italian menu, reflecting
another side of Argentina's heritage.
803 Ninth Avenue (53d Street), Clinton, (212) 333-5685. This small
newcomer offers Manhattanites a taste authentic Peruvian dishes like papas a la huancaina, or boiled
potatoes with spicy cheese sauce. Much of the menu is only available on weekends.
82-18 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens, (718) 426-8868. A
bright, efficient and friendly Colombian restaurant serving huge platters of perfectly fried red snapper
or grilled pork loin suffused with garlic, served cassava, yuca and, of course, rice and beans.