Long ago, before the stern doctrine of locavorism took root in kitchens throughout the land, New Yorkers used to fantasize about the next big food craze from abroad. There was the great French invasion, of course, and incursions from far-flung destinations like Sichuan province, Tuscany, and Spain. A few whispers about Peruvian cuisine began circulating almost two decades ago, when Nobu Matsuhisa opened his famous establishment in Tribeca, after stints in Tokyo, L.A., and Lima. And why not? With its unique topography (mountains; plains; a long, bountiful coastline) and melting pot of gastronomic influences (Japanese, Chinese, Latin, West African), Peru has one of the most diverse food cultures in the world. But these days, the city’s food obsessions (burgers, pizza, fried chicken, etc.) tend to hew closer to home. So unless you enjoy pisco sours (a favorite of the bewhiskered-mixologist set) or certain basic forms of seviche, the best way to get a taste of Peru’s evolving brand of fusion cooking has been to hail a cab for the airport and hop a flight to Lima itself.
But now comes Nuela, a boxy, slightly awkward-looking place, which opened late this summer on a scruffy stretch of 24th Street, in the Flatiron district. Nuela isn’t being billed as a Peruvian restaurant, exactly. The name is short for “Nuevo Latino,” and the chef, Adam Schop, grew up in Arizona and learned to cook in Chicago and New York. With its impersonal lounge area and flaming-orange color scheme, the room feels less like a first-rate restaurant than a randomly decorated nightclub in Caracas or Rio. But the eclectic, overstuffed menu contains edamame salads shaved with queso blanco, and yakitori-like anticucho skewers stuck with octopus and soft bits of pork belly. There are eighteen seviches available, many of them doused with unexpected Nobu-inspired fusion ingredients like Asian pear, pickled chiles, or yuzu. And if you’re in the mood for a robust feast, you can dine on an entire suckling pig (for $250), or a whole chicken marinated in the Peruvian style in aji-chile paste and roasted on a spit. “We say our cooking is 60 percent from Peru and 40 percent from everywhere else,” said our courteous waiter, who came from Colombia and was dressed, according to local Manhattan custom, in all black.
At his suggestion, we ordered little balls of spicy, sushi-grade tuna rolled in puffed rice ($7, with a creamy dipping sauce spiked with a Peruvian chile called panca), and three artfully composed new-school empanadas, each with a different stuffing: mashed oxtail and bone marrow (set over a parsley purée); hard egg, peppers, and other vegetables (deep-fried, over a white onion sauce); and a Chinese-style filling of rock shrimp and chopped pork. These were followed by a few of the anticucho skewers and a selection of sandwich-style bocadillos, which included an ingenious (non-Peruvian) arepa with ribbons of smoked brisket and queso blanco, and a delicious escabèche made with soft blocks of veal tongue, which we consumed with a stack of sweet-corn Venezuelan pancakes called cachapas.
Schop is an acolyte of the acclaimed Nuevo Latino chef Douglas Rodriguez (who was supposed to be Nuela’s original chef, but pulled out), and he clearly has a knack for this kind of high-wire auteur cooking. But there’s a hectic quality to the proceedings (there are five subsections to work through before you get to the “platos” entrées or the grandiose “para dos personas” to-share dishes), a sense that in his big-city debut the chef is trying to display his entire repertoire in one sitting. So if you focus on one thing, make it the exhaustively inventive seviches, which include two kinds of tuna (get the one tossed with Thai chiles); fresh strips of slivery madai, or Japanese sea bream, flecked with smoked tomatoes and garlic chips; and fat, rose-shaped bulbs of king salmon spritzed lightly with Key lime. The lobster seviche is set in a pleasingly cool cucumber gazpacho tinged with ginger and shiso, and the beau-soleil-oyster version of the dish I ordered was served with a soy glaze and set under thin slips of seared tenderloin, which melted to a kind of salty sweetness when you popped them in your mouth.