Long ago, before the stern doctrine of locavorism took root in kitchens throughout the land, New Yorkers used to fantasize about the next big food craze from abroad. There was the great French invasion, of course, and incursions from far-flung destinations like Sichuan province, Tuscany, and Spain. A few whispers about Peruvian cuisine began circulating almost two decades ago, when Nobu Matsuhisa opened his famous establishment in Tribeca, after stints in Tokyo, L.A., and Lima. And why not? With its unique topography (mountains; plains; a long, bountiful coastline) and melting pot of gastronomic influences (Japanese, Chinese, Latin, West African), Peru has one of the most diverse food cultures in the world. But these days, the city’s food obsessions (burgers, pizza, fried chicken, etc.) tend to hew closer to home. So unless you enjoy pisco sours (a favorite of the bewhiskered-mixologist set) or certain basic forms of seviche, the best way to get a taste of Peru’s evolving brand of fusion cooking has been to hail a cab for the airport and hop a flight to Lima itself.
But now comes Nuela, a boxy, slightly awkward-looking place, which opened late this summer on a scruffy stretch of 24th Street, in the Flatiron district. Nuela isn’t being billed as a Peruvian restaurant, exactly. The name is short for “Nuevo Latino,” and the chef, Adam Schop, grew up in Arizona and learned to cook in Chicago and New York. With its impersonal lounge area and flaming-orange color scheme, the room feels less like a first-rate restaurant than a randomly decorated nightclub in Caracas or Rio. But the eclectic, overstuffed menu contains edamame salads shaved with queso blanco, and yakitori-like anticucho skewers stuck with octopus and soft bits of pork belly. There are eighteen seviches available, many of them doused with unexpected Nobu-inspired fusion ingredients like Asian pear, pickled chiles, or yuzu. And if you’re in the mood for a robust feast, you can dine on an entire suckling pig (for $250), or a whole chicken marinated in the Peruvian style in aji-chile paste and roasted on a spit. “We say our cooking is 60 percent from Peru and 40 percent from everywhere else,” said our courteous waiter, who came from Colombia and was dressed, according to local Manhattan custom, in all black.
At his suggestion, we ordered little balls of spicy, sushi-grade tuna rolled in puffed rice ($7, with a creamy dipping sauce spiked with a Peruvian chile called panca), and three artfully composed new-school empanadas, each with a different stuffing: mashed oxtail and bone marrow (set over a parsley purée); hard egg, peppers, and other vegetables (deep-fried, over a white onion sauce); and a Chinese-style filling of rock shrimp and chopped pork. These were followed by a few of the anticucho skewers and a selection of sandwich-style bocadillos, which included an ingenious (non-Peruvian) arepa with ribbons of smoked brisket and queso blanco, and a delicious escabèche made with soft blocks of veal tongue, which we consumed with a stack of sweet-corn Venezuelan pancakes called cachapas.
Schop is an acolyte of the acclaimed Nuevo Latino chef Douglas Rodriguez (who was supposed to be Nuela’s original chef, but pulled out), and he clearly has a knack for this kind of high-wire auteur cooking. But there’s a hectic quality to the proceedings (there are five subsections to work through before you get to the “platos” entrées or the grandiose “para dos personas” to-share dishes), a sense that in his big-city debut the chef is trying to display his entire repertoire in one sitting. So if you focus on one thing, make it the exhaustively inventive seviches, which include two kinds of tuna (get the one tossed with Thai chiles); fresh strips of slivery madai, or Japanese sea bream, flecked with smoked tomatoes and garlic chips; and fat, rose-shaped bulbs of king salmon spritzed lightly with Key lime. The lobster seviche is set in a pleasingly cool cucumber gazpacho tinged with ginger and shiso, and the beau-soleil-oyster version of the dish I ordered was served with a soy glaze and set under thin slips of seared tenderloin, which melted to a kind of salty sweetness when you popped them in your mouth.
Once the entrées are hoisted to the table, however, a weary sense of battle fatigue begins to set in. “Do they always eat like this in Peru?” whispered the demure fashion executive to my right as we contemplated her heaping plato of grilled quail, which was piled with roasted peaches, a generous mound of quinoa, and a pat of seared foie gras for good measure. There’s also a hefty fusion version of hanger steak (with chimichurri sauce and excellent hash browns made from yuca root), and a modernist rendition of classic Peruvian “causa” (a coastal specialty made with layers of potato and seafood) done here with big chunks of Alaskan king crab. My portion of suckling pig ($65 buys a quarter of a hog) had a dreary, almost plastic quality to it, so if you’re in the mood for an extravagant meat feast, order the rib eye for two (with large, curving marrow bones, for $90) or the grandiose arroz con pato, which consists of numerous well-cooked duck products (gizzard, liver, leg, egg) arranged on a pan the size of a bicycle tire, over drifts of crunchy-bottomed paella rice.
Nuela seems to have been designed both as an ambitious gourmet destination and as a scene restaurant, although what that scene might be, at this early date, is not entirely clear. On the evenings I dropped in, groups of party girls dressed in tottering heels mingled uneasily at the sparsely populated bar with knots of sweaty tourists who looked like they’d just disembarked, en masse, from the Circle Line. They sipped baroquely named cocktails (Summer Wind, Devil’s Sweat) and listened to the restaurant’s echoing sound system, which features a distressingly heavy rotation of thumping Latin club music. Some of the fusion desserts (a twist on tres leches with caramel popcorn, goat-cheese cheesecake) have a similarly contrived feel. So stick to the simpler dishes, like the ice creams—dulce de leche, Peruvian coffee—or the puffy, pumpkin-flavored picarrón fritters. These may not be exactly like the ones you get on the streets of Lima. But if you don’t feel like hopping that flight from JFK, they’ll have to do.
Nuela (View Menu)
Address: 43 W. 24th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-929-1200
Hours: Dinner daily 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $19; entrées, $12 to $250.
Ideal Meal: Seviches, oxtail empanadas or smoked-brisket arepas, arroz con pato, pumpkin picarrón.
Note: The Latin-centric wine list includes a good selection of Argentine Malbecs, many bottles from Chile, and even two Pinot Noirs from Uruguay.
Scratchpad: One star for the seviches, and another for Schop’s inventive take on Peruvian cooking. Minus half a star for the relatively high prices, and another half for the space.