The Fifth Chef’s a Charm

SubaPhoto: Jeremy Liebman

In the shark-tank world of New York restaurants, proprietors try all sorts of desperate measures to stay afloat. They change their menus. They “redesign” their dining rooms. They cut prices; they raise prices. But the most common thing they do is to chuck the chef overboard. And if that doesn’t work, they keep chucking chefs overboard until one of the poor saps gets it right. Yann de Rochefort, the proprietor of Suba, on the Lower East Side, has been going through chefs at a fearful rate since he opened his stylish, Spanish-themed restaurant five years ago among the rapidly gentrifying storefronts along Rivington Street. The noted cooks who’ve toiled in De Rochefort’s kitchens, either full-time or as “consultants,” include Alex Ureña, whose own eponymous Spanish-accented establishment recently closed, and the great Catalonian chef Luis Bollo, who ran an excellent but also doomed Spanish restaurant in Tribeca called Meigas before his brief, equally ill-fated stint at Suba.

The newest chef at Suba (number five, if you’re counting) is Seamus Mullen, who is also the chef at a popular new tapas restaurant called Boqueria, which is co-owned by De Rochefort. To coincide with Mullen’s arrival, Suba’s subterranean dining rooms (the best known is the “Grotto,” which is suspended over a pool of brackish, burbling water) have been recast in shades of bright white and Prada red. But the most notable changes are to the menu, which is more ambitious than Mullen’s menu at Boqueria, but also a little less fun.

Mullen is a diligent student of Iberian cuisine, and also a card-carrying Greenmarketeer. In his latest kitchen, he serves up esoteric items like chewy smoked cod jowls, an array of boutique farmhouse ingredients (Mutsu apples, “first-of-the-season” beets, garlic scapes), and endless variations of pork belly, that Iberian haute-barnyard specialty, which you can order in little bricks with smoked fingerling potatoes, sprinkled with pea tendrils in pots of nice creamy Abruzzo rice, or incorporated into elegantly formulated croquetas.

Is all this carefully articulated Spanish grub enough to save Mullen’s new job, at least for a while? Probably. Though, to be honest, my problem with Suba has never been with the food; it’s with the claustrophobic, catacomblike space, in particular the Grotto, which feels unique, yes, but also a bit creepy, like you’re dining in some forgotten corner of the Paris sewers. On a recent visit, however, my seat above the moat was brightened by Mullen’s elevated interpretation of gazpacho, made with a light yellow-tomato broth, flakes of salty guanciale, and a little wheel of shrimp and avocado with a quail egg balanced on top. A series of high-minded tapas followed, including skewers of juicy lamb meatballs flavored with cumin, deliciously crunchy patatas bravas spiced with a chipotle-based Basque sauce called txistorra, and bits of soft, apple-glazed eel sandwiched between a bed of carefully “crushed” potatoes and a delicately poached farm egg.

The cod jowls appeared in the second salvo of dishes, which are larger and more overworked than the tapas. My snapper crudo tasted pretty good without the accompanying garlic scapes (they’re the green tendrils growing from the bulb), and two seafood rice preparations (one featuring cod, the other baby squid) were more or less ruined by the presence of litchis in one (the cod) and too-fishy-tasting deposits of uni in the other (the baby squid). But Mullen produces a creditable pork belly (though it’s not as good as the legendary suckling pig at Boqueria), and you won’t find a better version of that newest fad in meat-eater circles, lamb’s belly, which is sizzled here a la plancha and served with lamb saddle and a spoonful of yogurt.

Compared with the savory dishes, the desserts at Suba tend to be simple and refreshing. My favorite was the melocotón glaseado—vanilla cream, sliced peaches, and almonds poured over a disk of crunchy meringue. If the gloom of the Grotto gets to you, order a round for the table. It might help lighten the mood.

It’s hard to know exactly what kind of restaurant Rayuela means to be, which seems to be how the exuberant chef, Máximo Tejada, likes it. The location, on an anonymous stretch of Allen Street just below Houston, is scruffy and a little marginal, and the name, as explained by our tattooed waiter from Texas, means “hopscotch” in Spanish, a reference to Tejada’s penchant for grabbing culinary references from around Latin America and the world. There are numerous exotic cocktails available at the bar, some of them made with quince, guava, and even rose petals, and many of them delicious. There are also twelve appetizers, thirteen entrées, and a dizzying variety of seviches to choose from. The best of these is called “Seven Powers of the Sea,” a bracing agglomeration made with seven kinds of seafood floating in a vinegary tomatillo sauce.

Did I mention, also, that the walls at Rayuela are dotted with river stones from Peru and that there’s a real live olive tree (from California) growing in the downstairs lounge area, the gnarled branches of which spread up to the swanky dining room on the second floor? Not that this should distract you from Tejada’s eclectic cooking, which is quite good more often than it is bad. Among the quite-good dishes: the fried-plantain “mofongo” balls stuffed with pork, a cool wheel of paella threaded with fresh lobster and scallops, the creamy Ecuadoran seafood stew called surena, and that Afro-Brazilian specialty fufu (mashed plantains or yams), mingled with spicy shrimp and chorizo and decorated with plumes of fried plantains. Among the bad ones: a sludgy duck breast marinated in sugarcane, a tired portion of overcooked crispy pork, and virtually all the desserts, many of which seemed to have been flown in from some random industrial cafeteria on the outskirts of Lima, Peru.

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Address: 109 Ludlow St., nr. Delancey St.; 212-982-5714.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $19; entrées, $22 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Gazpacho, creamy rice with pork belly, saddle of lamb, vanilla cream with poached peaches.
Note: Try the sangria made with beer, specially concocted for summer.
Scratchpad: Mullen is a two-star chef, but the room, despite the renovation, still brings things down a star.

Address: 164 Allen St., nr. Rivington St.; 212-253-8840.
Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $17; entrées, $22 to $31.
Ideal Meal: “Seven Powers of the Sea” seviche, mofongo balls, spicy shrimp with fufu or paella, cocktails.
Note: Rayuela serves a nice Sunday brunch. Try the huevos rancheros with chorizo, or the lamb burger with yucca fries.
Scratchpad: The cooking is vibrant, if uneven. The cocktails solidify the star.

The Fifth Chef’s a Charm