It used to be professional food people were furtive about their diets. After all, who wants to hear portly food critics and jolly, fatso chefs discuss their dreary encounters with carrot sticks and meager late-night cans of tuna. But Dr. Atkins’s latest protein revolution has changed all that. As all the world knows by now, the good doctor (may he rest in peace) espoused gusto, with certain limitations. In the cockeyed Atkins universe, bingeing on greasy delicacies like pork belly and barbecued beef ribs is considered healthful and possibly even stylish. The food press is suddenly filled with first-person accounts of esteemed food scholars dropping weight while devouring multiple servings of woodcock and pounds of bacon. My normally abstemious midwestern mother-in-law, no food scholar but a bellwether for trends of all kinds, called not long ago with news that she’d lost 25 pounds on a diet consisting mostly of lettuce and burger meat. “The key,” she whispered conspiratorially, “is I don’t ever eat anything white.”
Given this hothouse environment, it was only a matter of time before a big-name chef got swept up in the Atkins craze. Luckily for us, that chef is the effusively creative Douglas Rodriguez, whose new restaurant, Ola, is a kind of tongue-in-cheek testament to the glories of old-fashioned meaty goodness. Rodriguez has taken aspects of his former Nuevo Latino Manhattan establishments (Patria, Chicama, Pipa), edited them down, and given them a subtle protein twist. The room, on East 48th Street in Turtle Bay, is compact and windowless, like a bomb shelter, with a busy bar up front and rows of orange-tinted banquettes stretching back toward the kitchen. The menu has an elaborate seviche section, like at Chicama, and a tapas section, like at Pipa. Little asterisks on the menu denote “low-carb items,” and on top of that there is a “pure-protein section” filled with nuevo Atkins creations like grilled lamb chops served over shredded lamb shank, and long, tenderized skirt steaks cut from Kobe beef.
Atkins loons will probably want to begin their meal with one of seven quite delectable seviches, although I couldn’t resist the chef’s “mystery meatballs,” which are made with Kobe beef, covered in a creamy mushroom sauce, and served side by side in a kind of decorous porcelain trough. Next up were two appetizing empanadas: one stuffed with melting truncheons of Hudson Valley foie gras (leavened with figs and salty bits of serrano ham), the other made with a crumbly, soft corn crust and lumps of crab decorated with caviar from Uruguay. Other lavish finger foods included almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, a densely silky duck-liver terrine spread with cherry tomatoes over raisin toast, and the extravagant “Oysters Rodriguez,” which consists of fried oysters the size of flattened plums and creamy spinach spiked with horseradish, all served on the half shell, over a kind of sweet-potato tuber called fufu.
I’ve often thought that great chefs (and great food writers) tend to fall into two broad categories. There are the slim, precise technocrats (Jean-Georges, Boulud, Craig Claiborne) and the portly, unkempt Rabelaisians (Batali, Prudhomme, Liebling). Rodriguez is a card-carrying Rabelaisian, and like many of his colleagues, he has a knack for layering big textures and flavors together in creative and compulsively edible ways. Most of the seviches at Ola exhibit this talent, although if I had to choose one it would be the Peruvian seviche, an amalgam of fresh fluke and octopus covered in lime, chilies, and slivers of red onion and laid over wheels of cinnamon-flavored sweet potato. Among “pure protein” dishes, the lamb combo consisted of two perfectly grilled lamb chops set atop a pile of savory shredded lamb shanks, all bound together with feta cheese and a faintly creamy sauce made from huacatay, which, as your garrulous waiter will tell you, is a kind of mint from Peru.
On occasion, Rodriguez’s big appetite gets the best of him. The short ribs in my excessive, protein-rich parrillada (mixed grill) were quite fine, although the sweetbreads, skewered on a long cinnamon stick, were blubbery and almost raw. The chicken combo was similarly bland and overproduced, although the chef’s lunchtime, low-carb version of the classic Dominican dish chicharrón de pollo (pulled chicken legs spiced with cumin, among other items, and splashed with lemon aïoli) is worth a special trip. The same goes for Rodriguez standards like crispy Cuban pork (a boat-size portion of crackly pig, finished with a lime-based oregano mojo), as well as a creative new dish called tuna a la plancha. The tuna in question is a brick of sushi-grade bluefin toro, seared on one side only. The unseared side is rolled in olive oil and smoked paprika, so that when you bite into it, there’s a kind of symphonic textural progression from hot cooked to rare to cool, smoky sweet.
In accordance with Atkins regulations, there are no breadbaskets at Ola, no corn chips, no hot stacks of tortillas for dipping. If you must load up on carbs, there’s a fine example of rice and beans among the side dishes, or you can peruse the long roster of tropical cocktails, most of them spiked with copious amounts of sugar (try the frozen margarita made with oranges and saffron) and plumes of mint. Then there are the desserts, only one of which is reputedly “carbo-free.” It’s a kind of vanilla-bean panna cotta, which tasted perfectly fine, although not quite as fine as the carbo-rich wedge of cheesecake made from goat cheese and guava. There’s also an interesting dissertation on the pleasures of coconut (‘three coconuts—three temperatures”) and a mostly pointless dulce de leche fondue, in which you’re supposed to dip little cookies and candies. Of course, if you’re a true Atkins warrior, you won’t worry about cookies and candies anyway. You’ll do what my demure midwestern mother-in-law might do. You’ll grin madly at your fellow diners, call politely for the waiter, and order another round of that impeccably roasted pig.