What kind of fairy-tale world begat Nuela, a glitzy, global-Latin mess hall that dabbles in South American, French, Italian and Asian cuisines? We’ve already bid farewell to the pan-African Merkato 55, while the Indian-Latin Vermilion has enough spare capacity to handle a prime-time party of 20 any day of the week.
And now the 200-seat Nuela, rarely as full as it could be, brings us a fine swine take on Peking duck.
Sprinkle the white flesh with sea salt. Wrap in scallion pancake. Dip into guava glaze. Repeat. The milky loin yields with little resistance; chewy meat and crispy skin emit a lingering porcine perfume. A whole hog is $250; $65 gets you a quarter.
Food like this separates Nuela from big-box behemoths like Tao or Buddakan. A humble chicken soup is smoked, slicked with chili oil and served with a slab of swine belly. Outstanding.
They should sell the brilliant broth out of a truck as the weather turns chilly, and that’s what brings us to the bad news.
Nuela’s owners seem to think this gutsy, haute-street grub is best enjoyed in a series of red and orange rooms that evoke a discarded set from “Sex and the City.”
A downstairs foyer glows from beneath like a Martian landscape; upstairs, exposed filament bulbs burn so bright that dining companions can appear as silhouettes. The thumping new age Andean beats come off like a Southern Hemispheric cross between club and elevator music.
Chef Adam Schop, an acolyte of Douglas Rodriguez, a godfather of Nuevo-Latino cooking, sometimes lets his worldwide-wedding-buffet tendencies get the better of him.
Another riff, this time on the classic Cuban sandwich, involved a bland, breaded pork patty. A friend’s off-the-menu request for black beans with rice yielded sticky, Chinese-style grains and a mushy legume puree. Sea urchin, typically powerful with brininess, was manipulated into an undetectable crust in an otherwise competent, forgettable short-rib dish.
Still, Schop deserves credit for giving New Yorkers an offbeat, offal-friendly restaurant (try the grilled hearts) that mostly refuses to bow to culinary trends. There’s not a single gourmet pizza, $20 hamburger or fish taco on the menu. There is one sad nod to the city’s obsession with Italian fare; avoid the gritty parmesan-crusted scallops with gnocchi and tomatoes.
Schop’s hand is defter with ceviches; drizzles of lime make them closer to sashimi than citrus-cooked fish. Madai with smoked tomato doesn’t so much cause the mouth to pucker; it rather whets the palate for some bite-size brisket arepas later on, and perhaps a beastly ribeye for two ($90). The dry-aged, perfectly charred cow was tamed by a shock of sour chimichurri. Nice.
If only lots of seats meant lots of space. There were just inches between the back of my seat and the wall behind me, even fewer after I finished destroying the duck rice for two ($60). Imagine this: meaty confit, rare breast, sliced gizzard, jiggly foie gras all over a bed of al dente grains.
There was a mind-numbingly good paella, undercut by a mind-numbing absurdity: Mathematically challenged staff, perhaps to instigate fights over the last bite, brought three dulce du leche cookies as a parting gift for my party of two, then four cookies for our party of three, then zero on a final visit, which was for the best because they’re tooth-achingly sweet.
I suppose it’s easy for a venue this big to lose count.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Dishes are $6-$250.
Sound Level: Loud, 75-80 decibels.
Date Place? Maybe not. Think of those skewered hearts.
Inside tip: Saccharine signature cocktails are bested by competent classics, like mojitos and caipirinhas
Special feature: The foams on desserts are often better than the desserts themselves.
Will I be back: For the duck.
Nuela is at 43 W. 24th St. at Sixth Avenue. Information: +1-212-929-1200 or http://www.nuelany.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)