Portuguese Food? Yes, Portuguese Food (and Peruvian, and Basque…)
Not so long ago, the closest thing to imported food that locavore-obsessed, comfort-minded New Yorkers seemed to crave was the latest version of locally made faux -Neapolitan pizza. But to the delight of my beaten-down food-aristocrat friends, the city is awash in inventive new restaurants featuring delicacies from far-off, relatively underrepresented destinations like Bangkok, the Basque Country, and even Lima, Peru. With its impersonal lounge area and flaming-orange color scheme, Nuela feels less like a first-rate dining establishment than like a randomly decorated nightclub in one of the night-owl districts of Caracas or Rio. But Adam Schop’s eclectic, surprisingly accomplished Nuevo Latino menu is crammed with artfully conceived finger foods like delicious New Age arepas stuffed with ribbons of smoked brisket. There are eighteen seviches available, many of them doused, as at the Nobu-inspired sevicherias of Peru, with unexpected fusion ingredients like Asian pear, pickled chiles, or yuzu. And if you’re in the mood for a more robust feast, you can dine on an entire suckling pig or a whole chicken marinated in aji-chile paste and roasted on a spit.
“This is the real thing,” intoned my friend the Thai-food snob as he sniffed an authentically milky and lemony bowl of tom kha hed spicy coconut soup at the newly opened New York outlet of the famous Las Vegas restaurant Lotus of Siam. Thai-food guru Saipan Chutima and her husband, Bill, have set up shop in the old Cru space on lower Fifth Avenue, complete with an impressive array of appropriately sweet Alsatian wines to go with your spicy helpings of kang khiao wan (green curry) and fiery ground-pork larb tossed with clouds of roasted chiles. Thai cooking is also the theme at Harold Dieterle’s new West Village restaurant, Kin Shop. TV’s former Top Chef dutifully grinds all his curries in-house, but his real genius is with hefty Western ingredients like Maine lobster (tossed in a southern-style yellow curry) and lobes of fatty bone marrow, which are split and roasted, dripped with a rich fermented-bean sauce, and designed to be rolled, taco style, inside stacks of buttery roti pancakes.
George Mendes’s elegant little Flatiron establishment, Aldea, remains the best place in the city for Portuguese cuisine, and Seasonal Restaurant & Weinbar, in midtown, is still where my fresser friends like to go when they’re in the mood for flaps of properly melting Austrian Schweinbauch (pork belly) spritzed with honey vinegar. The Mediterranean sampler, or maybe a piece or two of the crackly-skinned, impossibly tender Mediterranean-style chicken “under a brick,” is the meal I order whenever I visit Einat Admony’s Middle Eastern–influenced Nolita restaurant, Balaboosta. And for all things Basque, my establishment of choice these days is Jeffrey Chodorow’s cavernous new place Bar Basque. Sure, the nightclub lounge is overrun with crowds of antic suburban revelers, and the vast glass dining room looks like something you’d see at a megachurch in Texas. But the space has a strange Lost in Translation magic to it, and the kitchen turns out well-executed versions of traditional Basque favorites like crocks of rich bread soup spiced with chorizo, suckling pig laced with truffles, and, for dessert, eggy slabs of French-toast-style torrija flavored with candied lemons and cinnamon.