Remember the Nuevo Latino craze? More to the point, remember Douglas Rodriguez, the Miami-reared Cuban-American chef who practically invented it? For a while there, the chile-fired, tuber-heavy Pan-Latino cooking style was hot. Rodriguez’s trendsetting Patria spawned a gaggle of imitators slinging seviche and muddling mojitos like there was no mañana. But it wouldn’t last. The quixotic Rodriguez moved on to Chicama, Pipa, and finally a short-lived low-carb experiment called Ola, before decamping to Florida. After a decade, Nuevo Latino’s sizzle had definitely started to fizzle.
But the food, with its bracing flavors, tropical accents, and satisfying heft, still has its fans. A couple of them, nostalgic for Patria at its peak and despairing of their Fort Greene neighborhood’s lack of dining diversity (heavy on French bistros, light on everything else), recently teamed up to open Luz. Just a month old, the streamlined neighborhood spot has already attracted an eclectic neighborhood clientele—sophisticated French-speaking toddlers with parents in tow, men in seersucker suits sipping watermelon mojitos, even a geeky table of Chowhound.com types who—pop-eyed and practically foaming at the mouth—zeroed in on every plate of food that came out of the kitchen one evening like a pack of airport-security Rottweilers.
Luz has a modern look and none of the forcedly festive joie de vivre you might associate with nineties- era Pan-Latinodom. Bare tables squeeze together along a brightly upholstered banquette; light fixtures cluster beneath a skylight. There’s a long bar running down the middle of the room and an equally long list of Latino-themed cocktails, from caipirinhas to Pisco sours, deftly mixed, gently priced, and just the thing to wash down the kitchen’s gift of greasy yautía chips and subtly spiced salsa.
The menu reads like a greatest-hits list of the Latin American larder, and for starch fiends, it’s hard to abstain from the sweet, lush arepas, filled with melted cheese and dabbed with cilantro pesto, or the trio of toothsome empanadas (ropa vieja in a wheat-flour shell, spinach in corn flour, and black beans in plantain), both accompanied by a refreshing watercress salad. Another, more virtuous appetizer approach is to channel the Atkins-inspired spirit of Ola with a bountiful herb salad, say, or a vegan Brazilian-style soup, a thin and silky cashew-and-coconut-milk concoction. Then, of course, there’s seviche, Latin America’s citrus-cooked answer to sushi and the edible antidote to a steamy New York summer. Of the three on offer, diced tuna dressed with coconut milk, lime juice, red onion, and cilantro comes off best. The passion-fruit-dressed snapper, despite its harmonious balance of sweet and acidic, is cut into stringy, cartilage-y slices, as if the kitchen crew had been issued dull sporks instead of sharp knives. And the night we tried the copas de cangrejo, the diminutive daikon cups were filled with crab salad that had seen better days.
But once we moved on to the heartier dishes, we were amply rewarded. Churrasco, a flavorful strip of marinated beef with the grainy tenderness of hanger steak, is one of those satisfying dishes that makes it hard to contemplate ordering anything else. Thin ribbons of warm, crisp collard greens sprinkled with farofa lend the dish a Brazilian flavor, and “yuccafongo,” a pork-and-plantain-free play on mofongo consisting of deep-fried mashed yucca, demonstrates the grease-graced heights to which hash browns can only aspire. Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken is another winner, nicely spiced with burnished skin and juicy meat that can almost be willed off the bone. At $5 a generous half, it’s a steal—even if sides, like white rice and black beans, cost $4 extra. And lechon asado, a plate of fat-laced pork, moist and tender enough, with delicious fried plantains, yellow rice, and pigeon peas, is much more substantial and flavorful than a pair of lamb chops served with garlicky spinach and wan sweet potatoes.
Desserts like lemongrass flan and Mexican-chocolate cake are cavity-causing sweet, in proper Nuevo Latino fashion, but they hit the spot. And so does Luz. It might be a blast from the past, but it brings a fresh new flavor and a congenial style of service to a neighborhood that’s lapping it up.