From the way the media have been graphing each and every shake of Ricky, Jennifer, and Enrique’s butts, you’d think that no one north of Miami had ever heard a sexy mambo before. Since when has the insinuating allure of Latino culture been a head-slapping surprise around here? I’ll wager half Puffy’s annual lawyers’ fees that I didn’t have the only cha-cha loving mom in Flushing whose favorite song in the fifties was “Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom White.” Nor was my dad the only man to see his wife walk out of their bedroom dressed for the next bar mitzvah in a black lace fishtailed gown just like the one Xavier Cugat drooled over when he played conga shoulder-high to Abbe Lane. (Mom, by the way, was a knockout.) Besides picking up stickball and skellies, every one of my friends and I learned how to merengue before we could ride solo on a subway.
Walking through the door of Isla to a sudden goosing by a trumpeting blast of “Cherry Pink,” I immediately, gleefully feared my Aunt Doris was going to come out from behind the bar and make me dance with her. But eerily inviting resonances didn’t stop there, for Isla glows the exact shade of turquoise my mother painted all her kitchen moldings while listening to a radio station that played “Perfidia,” lots of Tito Puente, and Eydie Gorme’s Spanish records. If I hadn’t read her bio, I’d swear Isla’s owner, Diane Ghioto, had grown up round my corner. She hails from Tampa, in fact, where she was surrounded and delighted by at least as many Latino influences as Little Ricky Ricardo, and after making several trips to Havana, she decided to indulge her fantasy of what the Cuban capital might have been like in the fifties.
Ghioto says the look she went for is “swank,” which just happens to be the name of the Eisenhower-era men’s-furnishings company that made my first pair of cuff links. They were faceted “onyx,” set in sleek gold-toned rhodium: real brazen, but real cool. I don’t know if the company is still in business, but Ghioto brings honor to the brand. Rare is a restaurant or hotel design referencing this period that doesn’t cause kitsch itch or seem frigidly retro. But her lagoon-hued boîte could gratify both Meyer Lansky and Morris Lapidus, for Isla has the energy inherent in the best of American moderne. It’s not perfect. Thanks to Isla’s rapid success, the narrow, 55-seat L-shaped room already feels cramped, and the music is so loud and infectious that you resent the lack of enough room to rumba. Someone needs to lower the volume, or take over the space next door and lay a dance floor fast.
Luckily, Isla has chef Aaron Sanchez to keep folks in their seats. You want proof talent is genetic? Sanchez’s mom is Zarela Martinez, the chef-owner of Zarela on Second Avenue. Her handsome visage should be enshrined on some denomination of the peso for what she has done to wise up Americans to the notion that Mexican cuisine possesses far more substance and spark than what gets rolled in a burrito. Aaron inherited not only his mother’s smoldering good looks but her fearlessness in presenting vibrantly original dishes. Having trained with both Douglas Rodriguez, the former wizard of Patria, and Alex Garcia, chef at the sunset-bright Calle Ocho, Sanchez has fashioned his own savvy, free-wheeling Cuban menu – respectful of origin but playfully relishing the fact that most of us are more familiar with Cuba’s music than with its food. Suckingly juicy shreds of beef picadillo are pressed into chewy, barely sweet plantain cups to form delicious tostones rellenos. Mussels spiked with their requisite garlic acquire an unexpected payoff from a wonderfully heady overlay of smoked tomatoes. A tropical salad of avocado, tangerine, and powerful red onion is splashed with a brisk cilantro vinaigrette. The crackle of sweet cornmeal and shards of chorizo almost overwhelm an order of smoked-chicken croqueta in saffron sauce but arrive in better balance another night. Empanaditas, however, have the weird airiness of hors d’oeuvre at a corporate lunch, devoid of fillings equal to the tostones’ density. But the seviche – including lime-juice-marinated oysters, slashes of tuna vigorously seasoned with aji pepper paste, and scallops awash in coconut broth – is as deliriously invigorating as a Luna Roja, the house drink (Sauza gold, Cointreau, and a rim of salt and cayenne pepper). Two of these and you’ll swear Eydie is singing in English.
Entrées feature Sanchez’s welcome first attempts at a lighter touch (he perfected the blunt approach as L-Ray’s opening chef). An impressively tender duck breast is presented under a lovely, almost-too-delicate tamarind glaze. Angus strip steak gains estimable body with a confident, elegant Madeira-wine sauce served with cleanly fried yuca. Don’t be surprised if the chicken’s spiced-rum-and-citrus marinade is bottled one day. Additional fire for a sour-orange mojo and mashed-bonaito stuffing may be what causes a pork chop to be overcooked both times, but if he can solve the uneven cooking, Sanchez has a great dish here. Curious that paellita winds up the menu’s weakest choice, but its pale flavors and zipless familiarity actually run counter to the pleasing invention all around it, namely jumbo shrimp in a brackish and bold plantain crust or a near-pulsing salsa verde fortifying a flaky pan-roasted sea bass.
Despite Spanish names, desserts have only a passing relation to Cuban cuisine. What a relief. Choose from an easy, smooth espresso flan, a happy overdose of butterscotch custard and caramel; bizarrely pleasing mango-mint sorbet sandwiches; chocolate del cielo, “near Heaven” like its name suggests; and a superb pineapple tart that hardly needs its coconut ice cream. And yet, the coolest meal-ending treat isn’t any of those. Isla serves coffee, not frappa, mocha, or chocolate, just regular coffee that is irregularly good. Be careful – drink one cup too many, and then what you gonna do with all that energy? True, customers have been known to ask Diane Ghioto to dance, and she happily obliges, but if this keeps up, she is going to need a marimba band. And my mother’s old lace dress.
Isla, 39 Downing Street (212-352-2822). Dinner only. Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight. Friday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $13.50; entrées, $14 to $24. All major credit cards.