‘You’re the first,” the bartender said as I bellied up to the little bar at Sueños, the aptly named new Mexican restaurant in Chelsea. Moments before, I’d pointed, with hesitant, quivering fingers, to an item on the cocktail menu called a “Double Secret Probation Margarita.” The drink, made from a single shot of designer tequila, cost an astonishing $30, and according to the bartender, no one had dared order it before me. The concoction (an even more rarefied version is available for $69) arrived in a small cocktail glass (I’d imagined something the size of a communal goldfish bowl) and had the dense, swirling quality of antifreeze. After two sips, I had trouble locating my tongue. After four sips, my wife became a little alarmed. “Say something,” she commanded. But it was too late. I’d already lapsed into a pleasantly dreamy, addled state.
Of course, sueños means “dreams” in Spanish, and if the drinks don’t help you achieve some beatific approximation of Mexican-restaurant nirvana, then chef Sue Torres’s inventive cooking just might. The small, subterranean space on West 17th Street used to be occupied by a darkly lit dating destination called Alley’s End. But the new owners have blown a skylight through the roof and painted the room in jolting tones of fuchsia and peach. There’s a glassed-in Mexican rock garden along one of the walls, and a kind of raised D.J. platform in another corner, where a merry lady mashes fresh guacamole in an anthropologically correct volcanic mortar while dexterously spinning out a steady stream of fresh hot tortillas.
“If the drinks don’t get you to Mexican-restaurant nirvana, then chef Sue Torres’s inventive cooking just might.”
Ms. Torres, who was formerly executive chef at Rocking Horse, cooks in a similarly dramatic style. Our first dish, I woozily recall, was a pair of lobster fritters leavened with fresh corn, flavored with citrus salsa, and placed in a pool of cream sauce spiked with chipotle. After that came a pair of small, crunchy tacos filled with diced fingerling potatoes, then topped with a tasty chopping of cold smoked duck breast. There are two serviceable types of fusion empanadas on the menu (one stuffed with smoked pork, the other filled with goat cheese and fava beans and made to resemble fancy French puff pastry), as well as gummy quesadillas filled with sautéed huitlacoche (that’s a fungus found on Mexican corn, in case you didn’t know) and dexterously rolled in the shape of cigars.
Much of this food is available on an elaborate “chili tasting” menu as well as à la carte, and not surprisingly, some dishes are more successful than others. Torres’s superior chorizo quesadilla is spiced with chili rajas, stuffed with potatoes and hot chorizo, and decorated with tangy slices of McIntosh apple. Her pork tamale is almost as tasty (it’s a satisfying amalgam of smoky sliced pork and shrimp wrapped in a banana leaf), and my wife’s fine order of chili-rubbed goat contained enough minced garlic to rouse me from my margarita stupor. But the restaurant’s fish dishes tended to be a little bland (underdone tuna, overwet Chilean sea bass covered with limp crumblings of tortilla), and the aggressively gourmet roast-chicken enchilada (it’s filled with squash blossoms) could have been dressed with something more vigorous than pumpkinseed sauce.
Not that the boisterous crowd at Sueños seemed to notice. The little margarita bar was mobbed on the evenings I staggered in (it’s decked with baskets of fine, not-too-greasy tortilla chips and pots of spicy, fresh-made salsa), and the rest of the restaurant was packed to the brim with eager, chattering Mexican-food enthusiasts. For dessert, they dined on sweet puff-pastry empanadas filled with guavas and cream cheese, platters of un-Mexican profiteroles bursting with copious amounts of pistachio ice cream, and a decoratively layered sponge cake that tasted mild but was fun to look at. These sweet dishes tend to blend together after a while, so ask for one of each and pass them around the table. Or just skip the desserts altogether. Take a little nap, visit one of the ATMs down the street, and order another drink.
Sueños, 311 West 17th Street (212-243-1333). Tuesday through Sunday, 6 p.m to 2 a.m. Appetizers, $7 to $10; entrées, $17 to $23. All major credit cards.