I’ve had it with Douglas Rodriguez. I’m over his being one of the most exhilarating and untrickily inventive, firm-handshaking, twinkly eyed chefs to embrace this city in the past decade. Though it takes more will than smarts to do so, I’m going to ignore that he has given seviche a spectrum of flavor possibilities that would make Ben & Jerry’s proud. I will even deny ever bearing witness to the fact that Miami has never recovered from his having giving up Yuca and a tan and moving north. Why? Because Rodriguez is a big, fat – no, scratch that, ‘cause, boy, is he getting slimmer by the minute. Rather, he is a wretched tease, as frustrating as every picture I’ve ever seen of Alyssa Milano as an adult.
Four times I have been to Chicama – count ‘em, Papi, four – and not once have I been able to score an order of this man’s roast suckling pig. Anyone lucky enough to have savored this porcine paradise at Patria or Yuca when Rodriguez cooked at both knows that Babe would have been happy to die for such a dish. But the way my luck’s been running at Chicama, I’m the one who’s going to leave this earth without ever reaching hog heaven again.
My first dinner there is on a Monday, and the menu lists suckling pig as a plat du jour, available only on weekends. How familial. So we make do with a sweetly incendiary and giddily explosive cavalcade of electrifying seviches: Ecuadoran-style shrimp with tomatoes, marinated in tangerine and lime; tuna and squid sparked by lemongrass, ginger, and Thai basil; a winning sister act of Alaska king and snow crab in a dense horseradish mustard sprinkled with cilantro; what the house calls surf and turf, really a trio of sole, clams, and ham smacked with cilantro, garlic, and jalapeño – as subtle as the Three Stooges and as embarrassingly enjoyable. Okay, fine. I managed.
The second time, the chef humbles our table by offering to prepare a tasting menu, then bewitches us with a gratin of wonderfully tender green-lip mussels showered with tomato-fennel salsa. Name-dropping-worthy oysters Rodriguez, breaded and fried, with horseradish creamed spinach in a sauce of mint, chiles, garlic, and feta. Darkly tempting smoked-marlin salad made irresistible by a lacing of tamarind and vanilla. And lamb anticucho with mint mojo that disappears off the skewers faster than two rounds of Buena Vistas, a jade-tinted double-rum-and-peach-schnapps cocktail guaranteed to make you stupidly grateful you didn’t drive.
But whoa! Wait just a second. Would David Waltuck ever whip up a Chanterelle sampler without his signature seafood sausage? Can you imagine a Martha Stewart Christmas without a banister garroted by bows? So, why does no little piggy come to park it at our table? Sure, the scallop tiradito made us nuts – fresher than an unexpected kiss on the mouth, cool and bracing in cucumbers, grapefruit, and lime juice. The salt-baked fish in eucalyptus wood is luminous and succulent, too, shot through with shards of caramelized lime. And though pasty Cabrales cheese mucks up an adobo-rubbed rib eye, the hen stew, a kind of upscale Peruvian curry with turmeric and walnuts, is just sublime. The sweet potatoes alone would make the curry memorable. But someone’s holding out on me. It’s as if Streisand were to announce to an MGM Grand audience that she doesn’t feel like doing “Papa, Can You Hear Me.” (If only!)
The third time I’m at Chicama, it’s not Rodriguez’s fault. Half my guests don’t eat meat and are more than happy to devour black empanditas filled with calamari plied with saffron and squid ink. A velvety crab dip arrives with plantain chips, and salmon is tamed – no, transformed – by a delicate salsa verde. The other half are beside themselves to find smoked pork chop on the menu instead, pinker than Porky’s tail in any Warner Bros. cartoon, and, thanks to a sparkling ginger purée and black-bean broth, probably the best chop I can remember tasting. Still, close but . . .
Fourth and final try. I figure we can’t miss. Not only is the roast suckling pig now permanently on the menu, but it snows hard half the day, rains incessantly the other half, and by nighttime, the city is mushier than a Nora Ephron script. Streets are so bare, we guess we’ll be able to order the whole sow. But Chicama is jammed. They’re practically hanging from the weathered rafters and arched clay tiles that make up the incredible ceiling atop this rustically sexy room that used to be Colina but is now blessed by this much better fit. There’s not a table to be had in the bar area under the constellation of semiprecious-colored-glass lanterns. The seviche counter must be giving it away for less than one of Cindy Adams’s cheap shots. And the dining room is almost too full of high spirits. But I’m about to join them. At last! I order it, triumphantly, as if Moses had just been told by Jehovah he could enter the promised land. Then, just a few minutes later, in my peripheral sight line, I catch the waiter timidly approaching my table. He’s sorry, he says. It’s been sooo popular since it’s been put in the menu, he says. They’re out of it, he says.
Out of it! That’s does it, Rodriguez. If you think I’m going to tell anyone that Chicama is such an unequivocal delight I don’t care how long it’s taking you to open up your long-planned restaurant Unico, you’ve been sucking on one too many jalapeños. Don’t even dream I’m going to let anyone know that your marinated goat with malanga hash is pot roast gone wild, that your duck seviche is so dizzyingly weird and addictive, and that your chupe, a turmeric-and-saffron-based seafood chowder, beats any bouillabaisse this side of Marseille.
Me, blab about your attentive staff, which feels better to us than being waited on by family? Your chocolate “bomb” that’s a great dome of a gooey candy bar? No way, Dougie baby. I’ll make this real simple. You get nothing out of me till I get the best out of you. Whole hog or I’m a bump on a log. Put that in your pork and stuff it … and then serve it to me, damn it.
Chicama, 35 East 18th Street (212-505-2233). Monday through Thursday noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m., Sunday till 10 p.m. Appetizers $7 to $19, entrées $19 to $44. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.