Little Oaxaca

Casa ABC: Distressed beams, terra-cotta roof tiles, and photos of Mexican peasant folk.Photo: Carina Salvi

I suppose if you think about it long enough, you can come up with all sorts of stark similarities between the retailing of panty hose, say, or garden furniture, and the messy, unpredictable business of peddling food. A restaurant is selling a product, after all, and how this product is displayed, and the carefully calibrated ambience in which it is consumed, is crucial to the success or failure of the enterprise. Just ask the proprietors of the baroque downtown furnishing store ABC Carpet & Home, who have been dabbling in the fickle world of restaurants for several years now, with mixed success. Their first restaurant was called Chicama, an inventive, seviche-themed establishment managed by the great Nuevo Latino chef Douglas Rodriguez. But when his esoteric products didn’t move as quickly as hoped, Rodriguez departed. Now Chicama has been replaced on the ground floor of the ABC building by Lucy Mexican Barbecue, a restaurant carefully calculated to appeal to the more boisterous, elemental tastes of today’s dining consumer.

Maybe that’s why Lucy feels a little cobbled together at first, like an enterprise assembled less from the vision of a single chef than from a series of effusive focus groups. There’s the trendy reference to barbecue in the title, and a menu haphazardly crowded, according to the current fashion, with endless varieties of tacos y enchiladas (eight choices), small-dish antojitos and entrées (twelve in all), and postres (eight, including a massive chocolate fundido for two). There’s the teeming after-hours bar, antically patterned with multicolored glass squares to encourage the consumption of many antically colored house margaritas. There’s the décor of hand-distressed beams (everything at ABC is hand-distressed) and terra-cotta roof tiles and photos of Mexican peasant folk arranged slightly askew on the whitewashed walls. There’s even a little shopping arcade by the restaurant’s entrance, where you can purchase appealing Third World baubles (South African key chains, Christmas ornaments from Mexico, etc.) with money withdrawn from an ATM tastefully clad in a kilim rug.

I confess I bought a South African key chain before my first meal at Lucy, and also a fine compilation of Latino Christmas tunes, although how these purchases added to my dining enjoyment is hard to say. Andrew DiCataldo, who also succeeded Douglas Rodriguez at the Nuevo Latino restaurant Patria, on Park Avenue South, is the executive chef at Lucy, and his stated culinary “muse” (the press kit’s term) is the food of Oaxaca. This means countless varieties of mole, of course, a few of which were present, at least in name, in the first giant tsunami of Mexican finger food to hit our table. There were platoons of tacos in this deluge (filled with ropes of pork, decently spiced chicken, or dry, gnarly bits of steak), greasy, overly cheesy quesadillas cut into thick wedges (try the short-rib version with dried Oaxacan pasilla peppers, and the one stuffed with chorizo and potatoes), plus a selection of totopos, which are flat, crisp tortillas, piled with chayote (a kind of squash), bland shreds of duck confit, or dreary, very un-Oaxacan helpings of crabmeat.

For more temperate eaters, there are two passable (and, alas, un-Oaxacan) seviches, one containing red snapper, Serrano chilies, and buckets of lime; the other tequila-soaked shrimp, tomatillos, and demure little scoops of avocado. The spicy shrimp salad is as fresh and spicy as advertised, and if you prefer your greens served with large, peppery items, the chile relleno salad comes with a baseball-size ancho chili encased in a crispy skin of bread crumbs and engorged with spiced chicken and chewy deposits of smoked cheese.

The tamales I sampled seemed similarly authentic (try the one filled with poached chicken and doused with mole amarillo), although nothing on the menu transports you back to ye olde Mexico quite like DiCataldo’s approximation of pozole verde. This admirable dish is somewhere between a soup and a stew, and the Lucy version contains pulled pork and waxy kernels of real hominy, all simmered together, with green chili, slices of radish, avocado, and bits of hoja santa leaf, and served in a regal glass bowl.

I enjoyed my pozole at the bar, surrounded by crowds of animated singles sporting their goatees and uniformly dated Jennifer Aniston hairdos. “They’ve opened this place up,” said my bachelor companion. “It’s fun now.” He’s right, I suppose, although if you want to have a fun culinary experience at Lucy, it’s best to hew as closely to the barbecue portion of the menu as possible. The steak (called bistec a la plancha) turned out to be a featureless sliced fillet, and my order of halibut wrapped in hoja santa leaves was steamed into a state of vapid mushiness. The chicharrones pork ribs, on the other hand, were nicely crisped around the edges and touched with a purée of fresh avocado and tomatoes and cilantro. The barbecued ribs (lacquered with a sweet sauce made with ancho chilies and guava) were stacked like little logs and fell neatly off the bone. Best of all, though, was a classic Mexican barbacoa, composed of spicy lamb shoulder steamed to a kind of savory tenderness in banana and avocado leaves and served with a little pile of corn tortillas.

There are many weighty acompañamientos to go with this heavy food, the most interesting of which is a bubbling, gratinéed amalgam of black olives, chestnuts, and mushrooms. Its doppelgänger among the desserts is the chocolate fundido, a sticky, spicy fondue of melted Oaxacan chocolate, served with a platter of cookies, churros, and fruit for dipping. If you like your chocolate in a more condensed form, the pastry chef, Alex Asteinza, has constructed a round little ganache spiced with chili powder and a sweet sauce made from burnt oranges. There’s also something called a cocada, made with coconut flan, which looks (and sort of tastes) like a brick of bath soap dressed in goose feathers. If you want to try just one dessert at Lucy, try the buñuelos, which are dense little fritters glazed with maple syrup. Sample one or two with the fine Oaxacan hot chocolate. This addictive potion is sold by the cup ($4), pitcher ($10), or jug ($14), and contains enough cocoa to fuel even the most manic shopping spree for an extra hour or two.

Lucy Mexican Barbecue, 35 East 18th Street (212-475-5829). Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to midnight Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 Sunday. Appetizers, $5 to $12. Entrées, $12 to $24. All major credit cards.

Little Oaxaca