One of my favorite things about summer is that I have a lot more time to get into some great books. I love to read and somehow in the winter, I just don’t do it as much as I do in the summer when I’m out at the beach on those weekends away. In terms of literary style, while Craig is all about the classics, I’m more into contemporary fiction. This summer, I feel particularly blessed by the wonderful books I have read, all exquisitely written page-turners: The History of Love (Nicole Kraus), Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen), A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Housseini), The Glass Castle (Jeanette Walls), and most recently, The Bookseller of Kabul (Asne Seierstad). I’m now looking for some Labor Day reading (suggestions are welcome), but based on some fun meals at a new restaurant called Rayuela on the Lower East Side, I might just have to include the 1963 novel of the same name by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. I’d never heard of this book, nor did I know that Rayuela was Spanish for “hopscotch,” but I learned both of these things from Héctor Sanz, an owner of the Rayuela. I also learned that while Freestyle Latin sounds like a fancy 1970s roller-skating move, it’s actually the cuisine served at this ambitious new restaurant. Allow me to elaborate.
The first thing you’ll notice about Rayuela is its look. From the outside—an iron, glass, and brick façade—the word “Rayuela” is written in a sexy swooping silver light script. Step inside, and you’ll find a festive space pulsing with life (read: hipsters leaning into lounge tables, and South American hotties crowding the bar). Even when it’s not quite full at the bar (which is rare) the place feels effortlessly fabulous, like a cool bar somewhere in Buenos Aires that’s landed on Allen Street. Granted, the bar here serves drinks like you’ve never seen before. These are fruity but still serious cocktails by Junior Merino that highlight single spirits, like the Mezcal ($11)—a smoky blend of Mezcal, ginger, pineapple and Cointreau that pretty much guarantees a hangover if you exceed one. Ditto the Rye ($11), which was a personal favorite—mixed with guava, mint, lemon and agave nector. Hangovers, I have learned, are sometimes a necessary part of the dinner experience. Drink lots of water, take two Tylenol, and you should be fine.
Now, the restaurant is not just all cool cocktails in a blank space. Quite the opposite. The design is hot. I thought it was an AvroKo space but then I learned that it was designed by Sanz along with Jun Aizaki, previously of Rockwell Group and founder of Crème Design Collective in Brooklyn. Jun, I’ll say this: very impressive. The restaurant has this chic, raw, industrial/organic feel to it, a vibe that comes off walls and windows made from iron and beveled glass, salvaged hard wood planked floors, deep, banquettes/couches upholstered in textured sage and chocolate fabrics, and a beautiful olive tree that reaches up into the second floor dining room, like some sort of magical tree from Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s hard to resist leaving your seat to climb its branches up through the ceiling.
And now we come to the menu, a rather important part of the experience. All the stylish settings and colorful libations in the world can’t help a kitchen in need. But the kitchen here is on good, if curious, footing. The menu is a playful and fun experiment in pan-Latin cooking, but it’s also daunting. There are just under 50 dishes listed on the menu from ceviches, to salads, soups, appetizers, entrees, and sides. The pure volume of choice was overwhelming. (Please edit the menu.) In addition, it seems almost every one of these 50 plates is composed of at least a half dozen cross-cultural ingredients. Chef Maximo Tejada, who cooked under Douglas Rodriguez at Ola and Chicama, reaches across Latin America, all the way over to Spain, to create his signature Estilo Libre Latino (Freestyle Latino) cuisine. And while it’s clear that Tejada is having fun with the food, the sheer excess of ingredients made me cautious about his approach.
Take the Lobster Revolution ceviche for example. It includes chunks of sweet lobster meat along with grilled pineapple, jalapeno, young coconut water, lemongrass, ginger and a dollop of Uruguayan caviar. Can you say gild the lily? Then again, I’ll admit: I loved that lily. Ditto the churrasco—a long and lovely filet of beef from Uruguay that’s grilled perfectly so it’s tender and melting in your mouth, but this steak got all sorts of bling goin’ on. It’s anchored by Peruvian roasted potatoes, jeweled up with meaty wild mushrooms and a creamy puddle of cheese fondue, and topped not with just a plain old chicmichurri but one twinkling with lump crabmeat. Now did this nice steak need to be tricked out like Paris Hilton after a day at Harry Winston? Nope, not really. But did I love the dish? Well, yeah. Did Craig leave one bite left over? Not on your life. So, I guess my point is that while Tejada is a “more is more” chef, and that can cause for some concern, for the most part, his approach works.
As I’ve already mentioned, the ceviches (there are a dozen) are a strongpoint and a great way to start a meal. They are bright and light, and animated with layers of flavor—tart, sweet and spicy. Other favorite starters were the Bolos de Mofongo—spicy fried balls of mashed green plantains shaped like falafel, and filled up with bacon and onions and then balanced on a stew of peasant-like pulled braised pork shoulder that sort of reminded me of old school ropa vieja. Yum.
Tejada’s Jalea is also a fine way to begin your meal, but like the Bolos, this is not a dish that’s meant for one. Tejada cooks for four with each single serving. Clearly, he learned to cook from his grandmother (or mine). Anyway, the Jalea is sort of like the Peruvian version of fritto misto. It combines lightly fried shrimp, scallops, calamari, and octopus with a zippy, tangy aji amarillo aioli, slivered red onions, and dense and golden yucca fries. It’s far from delicate or light, but when Court and I had it on one of my first visits to Rayuela, we licked the plate clean. It’s delicious. Shrimp and (slightly tough) coins of spicy chorizo are served in a long banana shaped bowl tossed in a rich red salsa that’s almost like a mole, and plated over a bed of fufu (mashed plantains mixed with bacon—hello hips) with thin plantain chips that you can use sort of like edible spoons.
But sometimes Tejada’s “more is more” school of cooking feels sloppy. The house paella is an example. It’s made from green rice that’s slightly mushy and overcooked, and is stocked with peas, clams, chorizo, shrimp, and lobster (though not the least bit dried out) and then fitted into in an extra large ring mold that doesn’t really look so pretty stacked up into a six-inch hockey puck. Why not use a paella pan, a cazuela, or at least a nice big bowl? It’s tough to eat paella off of a flat plate. (And it’s not as much fun when you can’t scrape the bits of crusty rice from the pan.) Another curiosity is that he adds grilled chicken as a sort of garnish over the top of the rice, a strange decision considering part of the joy of eating paella (for me at least) is having the ingredients all cook together and soak up the seasonings from the rice. Why bother to slice some grilled chicken over the top? There’s enough going on in the paella without a chicken garnish.
On the other hand, the Arroz con Pollo that Craig and I tried on a more recent visit, is spot on, and allows a spare presentation of a roasted free range chicken with a paprika-dusted skin (and quite a juicy bird underneath it) tucked into a generous portion of (slightly mushy) rice that’s seasoned up with cinnamon and paprika, and rounded out with diced chicken and apple sausage, capers and olives to really give your taste buds a full body workout. Craig’s cousin Ricki, who’s not a huge fan of spicy food, went for a plate of crispy Cuban pork ($24) that includes a braised shoulder, cooked slow and long so it’s almost silky, with a sweet plantain and grilled pineapple mojo and cracklings so crispy I might’ve chipped a tooth trying to take a bite. Other than that though, a good plate o’ pork.
There’s probably not going to be much room for dessert if you’ve managed to work your way through the dinner menu, but if you crave a little something sweet, have the apple crumble timbale ($7), it’s a strangely down home American offering on such a Freestyle Latin menu. But those Freestyle kids are so unpredictable.
After dinner, I came home and looked up the novel Rayuela and discovered that it was an experiment in a genre known as magical realism. Cortázar wrote 155 chapters, but he designated the last 99 as "expendable." In essence he leaves the reader to decide whether to read them or not, and in what order. I thought, this could just be the perfect summer book. Hello, Oprah?