August 2, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

The New World at Nuela

Scallop on grilled pineapple; hamachi “cooked” in sour orange. Photo: Steven Richter
Scallop on grilled pineapple; hamachi “cooked” in sour orange. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s not been easy being Nuela. The fates have conspired against the ambitious project in the vast sweeping space that used to be Sapa. (It was only last week that the liquor license finally came through with free cocktails flowing to celebrate.)  The build-out took forever. The famously quixotic star chef Douglas Rodriguez announced he wasn’t joining the team after all -- too many other deals marinating. Overnight, Rodriguez’s second, Adam Schop, found himself promoted to executive chef and partner, ordering fixtures, supervising workmen, noodling with the designer, hanging art, redoing the menu to make it his own. 

Latino bread, octopus-pork belly skewers, brisket arepas, empanadas. Photo: Steven Richter

        More than a year behind, Nuela finally opened minus its liquor license. Most places, similarly handicapped, encourage you to bring your own bottle even though it’s illegal. But Nuela feared ticking off the authorities and the neighbors. On the phone a reservationist alerts me. “No BYO. You can always get a drink next door,” I am told. A 20% discount is offered to dull the pain, I am informed.

Orange fabric by designer Angel Sanchez frames bar-lounge action. Photo: Steven Richter

        After so much shabby chic and downscaling in small-plates-joints and pizza parlors, I’m quite taken with Nuela’s spiffy ambition – all red, black, and white, with bottles of Technicolor liquid on one wall, counters and communal tables with tall stools in the bar and asymmetric sashes of orange dividing one soaring space from another – 200 seats in all, padded with red tweed. The staff is cute too, red belts on black and white. (The same red belt Sanchez used for policemen’s uniforms in Venezuela.) One dashing blade has the profile of an Inca and spiked hair that looks like the hood ornament on a Pontiac.  Coupled with the discount, service gaucherie seems more amusing than annoying - especially when Colombian cheese bread and fabulous cornmeal ovals arrive with a saucer of honey-drizzled mascarpone while we’re still puzzling over the menu.

Choose smoked brisket or mushrooms layered between arepas. Photo: Steven Richter

        I guess I should confess that I’ve been judging Latino food for decades through the fog of a margarita or two. Now cold sober, I’m overwhelmed by a menu with more than a dozen categories all in Spanish - one just for roasted suckling pig (by the quarter, the half, or whole). I recognize “Pescados” and “Mariscos” on the separate “Ceviche” menu, more than 15 choices, escolar, madai, toro, mussels, oysters, $10 to $22.  I worry I won’t like vanilla in the citrus-cooked scallops, but the perfume is discreet enough against the tart-and-sweet of grilled pineapple, and three flower-like roulades of hamachi in spicy sour orange with basil and garlic are thrilling.

Clockwise: Fluke ceviche, sweet potato logs, potatoes huancaina, surf clam with watermelon, addictive corn-bacon crunch. Photo: Steven Richter

        Octopus and pork belly seem like strange bedfellows but I find them deliciously compatible in crispy small cubes, grilled on skewers. Smoked brisket layered with plantain and black beans is luscious on small rounds of cornmeal arepas with frizzies of white cheese found under “Bocadillos” (sandwiches). A vegetarian version with smoked mushrooms is wonderful too, though the arepa could be less dry. I like pork and shrimp with curry mustard in a delicate empanada called Chifa (as are Chinese restaurants in Peru) better than the rather too anonymous vegetable picadillo with hardboiled egg in a crumbly pastry wrap.  A roulade of salt cod with soy-stewed tomatoes, roasted onions, and potatoes with Chinese mustard is flavorsome too. 

       But I’d come back just for the whole chicken, brined and smoked, then served with a medium boiled egg and potato, swathed in lots of creamy, garlicky huancaina mayonnaise. (“For two,” the menu promises, but if you’ve had as many preludes as we, it’s enough for three or four and lunch tomorrow.)

Menu offers smoked chicken Peruvian style for two; I’d say 3 or 4. Photo: Steven Richter

        Of course I was eager to be fed again by Douglas Rodriguez, the Picasso of Latino fireworks at Patria. He’s been bouncing around the country, in and out of Manhattan, more fickle than Tiger Woods. It was he who brought Adam Schop from Zinc Bistro in Scottsdale to be his executive chef at De La Costa in Chicago and nominated him to run Nuela’s kitchen. Is Schop channeling his mentor now? “I went through a lot of brain damage when everything changed,” the chef says. “I became a contractor and an installer. I was new to New York and didn’t know anyone here. But I went into the kitchen and made everything my own.  He is the inspiration, of course. I wouldn’t be doing this food without the experience of Doug. But this menu is mine.”

Adam Schop, prepped to go solo after 2 years with Douglass Rodriguez. Photo: Steven Richter

        Nuela has an air of abandonment on the Monday I return.  The back room is empty.  A small party huddles at a half-full communal table. Another architecturally-coiffed waiter (must be in the job description) talks us into the surf clam ceviche with heirloom tomatoes that seems to be more about watermelon, but we’re content with fluke in preserved lemon yogurt with black olive. I quickly become addicted to crunchy corn nuts with fried onion and bacon crisps – great bar food but, still, no bar. Across the room a server delivers a stylish purple cocktail – sans alcohol. The manager at the podium is gloomy.

Cod roulade on stewed tomatoes with onion and Chinese broccoli. Photo: Steven Richter

        The chef has recognized our guest, also a chef, and insists on sending out a dessert – it’s the same chocolate cake with remarkable Peruvian coffee ice cream I tasted last time, thinking it could do without the tasteless milk foam. At the end, as before, come small, irresistible dulce de leche filled butter cookie sandwiches. Our guest goes wild and asks for more to take home. As I leave I wonder if Nuela can survive.

         But two days later the liquor license came through. The house was ready with Latino twists on cocktails and a day later wine was delivered.  Schop braced for a full surge on the weekend. The house celebrated by reducing prices. Platos are now $25 to $32, and that mahogany-smoked bird is a sensible $48 for two instead of  $56. Of course it is August and the crème de la skim milk is off in the Hamptons. Weekends belong to us, bridge, tunnel and refuseniks.

43 West 24th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 929 1200. Monday through Sunday 5 to 11 pm.