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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Putting the Nuevo Back Into Nuevo Latino
By WILLIAM GRIMES
November 14, 2001
WHEN Andrew DiCataldo succeeded the hugely popular Douglas Rodriguez as executive chef at Patria, he must have felt like a mayoral candidate running in the shadow of Rudolph W. Giuliani. Mr. Rodriguez, now at Chicama and Pipa, made a big noise when he zoomed in from Miami and showed New York what Nuevo Latino was about. He cooked with flash and panache. Like an infectious salsa tune, Patria immediately had the whole city dancing.
When Mr. Rodriguez left, after a falling out with his partners, it seemed there was only one way Patria could go, and that was downhill. I paid a couple of visits soon after Mr. DiCataldo took over and was unimpressed. Patria slipped from my top-10 list, and I forgot about it for a year or so.
Something wonderful happened in the interval. Mr. DiCataldo, who worked with Mr. Rodriguez at Yuca in Miami Beach before accompanying him north to open Patria, settled in, found his footing and hit his stride. Patria is his show now, and you can sense it. The tone is a little quieter, a little less like a big, nonstop party. The service is more dignified. Even the busboys are suave. And the food is superb.
Mr. DiCataldo can splash color and flavor all over the plate what's the point of nuevo Latino if you don't but he has a fine, disciplined hand. He understands subtleties. His menu is fun, high flying and inventive, but the ideas never spin out of control. Is it possible that Patria is even better than it was under Mr. Rodriguez?
Dinner starts dangerously, with Colombian pan de bono, chewy round rolls made from cornmeal and flavored very mildly with Colombian queso fresco. Fluffy, chewy and a little grainy, they assume lethal power when a waiter brings over a crock filled with nata, a potent mixture of butter, sour cream and roasted garlic. I could eat them all night. My fellow diners, in self-defense, had to ask that the pan de bono not be offered more than once.
Ceviche has always been a point of pride at Patria, and Mr. DiCataldo has not let standards slip, maintaining a delicate balance between acid, spice and fruit in dishes like shrimp with a bright-orange carrot, fennel and lime sauce heated up with habanero peppers, and a fresh, very appealing ceviche of tuna with curried Thai coconut and aji amarillo, a mild Peruvian chili.
The one disappointment was salmon soy ceviche, a delicate, Asian- accented variation with avocado, cucumber and cilantro on the side. At dinner, it was resplendent, but at lunch it fell apart. It was badly overmarinated and sloppily presented.
The one-roll rule is important if you order the empanada de queso, a very large, handsome cheese pie made from yellow cornmeal and filled with manchego and goat cheese. It has a tangy sweetness complemented by a salad of roasted peppers, baby spinach and tomatoes, and it could easily feed two. Ostras gratinadas an appetizer of four oysters, baked in the half shell with watercress, mustard and a roasted shallot cream, and dusted with crunchy plantain and strewn with bacon bits shows that Mr. DiCataldo can throw off restraint and simply ravish with flavor. A salsa of sweet plantain and pickled jalapeños brightens the plate.
Someone will have to explain the point of plantain fries to me. Dry and powdery inside, they run a distant second behind potato fries, no matter who makes them. But nuevo Latino restaurants feel duty-bound to put them on the menu. Here they show up at lunch with a decent but less than thrilling sandwich of suckling pig, presumably a way of recycling the luscious dinner entree of suckling pig, augmented with braised meat from the leg, which is sautéed with white beans and, improbably but deliciously, thin strips of squid.
Aji de pato, a little pumpkin filled with duck leg braised in walnuts, ginger, ancho chilies and orange juice, strikes a festive fall note, but seemed a little busy to me. It comes with seared duck breast in a mojo sauce flavored with dried cranberries. I was much more impressed with two simple dishes.
The first was roast chicken in a smoky chipotle sauce flavored with huitlacoche, or corn fungus, and served with a corn tamale and sautéed Swiss chard. The second was monkfish brushed with a sweetly earthy sauce of mushrooms and syrupy Pedro Ximenez sherry. A salad of frisée lettuce and smoked bacon, and purée of Latin root vegetables, filled out the plate convincingly.
Alex Asteínza, the pastry chef, offers one very good visual joke, the Smokeless Cuban, a chocolate pastry wrapper filled with chocolate and peanut butter mousse. It looks, as promised, like a Castro-size Cuban cigar, and it comes with a pack of spun-sugar matches and a little cup filled with whipped coffee custard. It livens up the table, but it is not the best dessert at Patria. The honors go to three little flans, vanilla, corn and pineapple, and to a disarmingly spare-looking plate dotted with bombones, or frozen buttons of dulce de leche covered in shaved chocolate and accompanied by cherry marmalade. Strawberry Basque cake, with an intriguing sauce of strawberry and red pepper, also belongs in the winner's circle.
Nuevo Latino, as a dining trend, has pretty much come and gone. It was a gaudy, exuberant and sometimes raucous movement, and in the wrong hands it perpetrated some truly regrettable food. But it was onto something fresh and exciting. Mr. DiCataldo deserves a double round of applause, then, the first for keeping Patria on course, the second for showing that nuevo Latino had something to say.
250 Park Avenue South (20th Street); (212) 777-6211.
ATMOSPHERE: A spacious, airy dining room for nuevo Latino cuisine.
SOUND LEVEL: Loud.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Baked oysters with watercress and shallot cream, shrimp ceviche with orange and carrot, roast chicken with huitlacoche chipotle sauce, black lobster empanada, monkfish glazed with Pedro Ximenez sherry, chocolate bombones, strawberry Basque cake.
SERVICE: Gracious and attentive.
WINE LIST: Nearly 500 wines, emphasizing Spain, Chile and Argentina. There are 22 wines by the glass, 32 half bottles and 23 magnum and larger bottles.
PRICE RANGE: Lunch, appetizers, $9 to $14; entrees, $10 to $19; desserts, $8; three-course prix-fixe, $20.01. Dinner, appetizers, $12 to $16; entrees, $22 to $32; desserts, $8. Three-course vegetarian tasting menu, $45; five courses, $59. Five- course nonvegetarian tasting menu, $69; seven courses, $79.
HOURS: Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 3:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No steps; restrooms on dining level.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN:
Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.