Sunday, August 21, 2011


The doors to Nuela are big, black and foreboding.
Once past, the enormous dining room is simultaneously warm and stark; lofty ceilings and black columns swathed in orange fabric banners, vivid red lighting and carmine banquettes give the restaurant a feel that is more clubby than convivial. Which is funny coming from Adam Schop ( a Douglas Rodriguez protege), who is about as congenial as they come. That said, he jumped in when Rodriguez kicked out, and it's a big undertaking for a New York newcomer. The restaurant, which spans South America and even gives some Asian nods, focuses Peruvian but doesn't put anything off-limits.  Since its opening, Nuela can glow as brightly as the decor, and sometimes even out-shine it.

I love the little cacti on the table, encased in shiny red boxes and stripey like the Cat in the Hat. They illustrate, too, a lot of the playfulness of Schop's technique, unrestrained by the traditional rusticity South American cuisine, and instead inspired by and elevating it. The menu is a smattering of all things Latino, broken down and exactingly described by your waiter into such categories ranging from ceviches and anticuchos to standard mains and sides. Schop's menu will change along with the seasons, which is striking for a Latino place, where menus often stagnate due to the limited variance of climate and thus seasonal offerings of provenance.
 The menus starts out with appetizers and cebiches [sic] .  Not being myself a huge raw-fish eater, I wouldn't trust me to be a good judge, but the "chifa" cebiche we tried was a little too acid, although I've heard complimentary things about them in general.   I liked my novel
gazpacho: a smooth, refreshing puree of with a bit of tartness and a underlying zing of heat. Crunchy croutonsand slivered almonds contributed texture.  And the fava beans and aji amarillo joined forces with crumbly ricotta salata to make the Solterito salad a winner.

Main courses were sometimes lacking in that zesty Latin fire that highlights great South American food.  The best of the three entrees

we tried was the Lomo Saltado- rich and meaty, but not too heavy:  a fine example of the classic dish and also showcasing Schop's lightened touch (he recently lost like 40 pounds, and some of this streamlining shows up in his cooking).  The Peruvian roast chicken was perfectly seasoned, perfumed
with smoke and salt and sumac, but unfortunately overcooked, and frankly a little dry.  It came with deliciously crispy fries, though, creamy inside and piping hot, served with a zippy version of the classic Huancaina sauce.  Halibut "Cau Cau" featured a meaty hunk of fish in a pale, unmemorable sauce, with tiny clams of which 50% were a little too oceany.
The dish might've made up that 50% had the halibut enjoyed a little time on the grill; a bit of char would've done it wonders.  Without that, it was decidedly bland.  Full disclosure, however, is that my most recent visit was during Restaurant Week, which restricted me to a limited menu and more generic offerings.   I feel like pretty much everything could have used just a tiny bit more punch to reach optimum enjoyment, and THEN this review would be a rave.  Without it, I'm left feeling like every dish was somewhat tame.  Except for one, for sure:  a side of broccoli raab with garlic and mirin was perfect.  It had all the salt and spice and char that in the other dishes seemed to be noticeably absent.

Desserts took a decidedly more postive turn, even though none of the options on the menu really screamed out to me at first.  But they sang loudly enough upon arrival, especially the fluffy mascarpone cheesecake enlived with a tangy, tropical sauce and an orb of vibrant orange sorbet.  Passion & Coconut was just a good, with a  tart passion fruit curd thin custard redolent of coconut to smooth things out.  Even the extremely rich chocolate terrine was good (me not being a huge chocolate fan), but a few bites of what reminded me of a dense, velvety smooth.oversize KitKat bar were enormously pleasurable. My photography of these little gems turned out wholly unacceptable, though, so you're going to have to trust me on this one. This might have been partly a result of one of the other notable assets at Nuela, though: the cocktails.  We began our repast with a variety of Pisco concoctions, and pretty much stuck with that throughout the evening.  There is an endless wine list, so lengthy that we didn't even begin to analyze but to notice the plentiful selections from South and Latin American, along with a smattering of the standards. 

I feel like it would be tough to leave Nuela entirely disappointed, but at the same time I feel there were improvements to be made, even given the Restaurant Week handicap. (And honestly, great places should perform even with the bargain stipulation). At my first visit almost a year ago, I remember more pizzazz on the plate; but a bit heavy.  This time around the flavors were more subdued, but lighter.  I feel like Schop has but to calibrate the perfect balance of the two and at that point, Nuela will live up to its potential.

43 W 24th St, New York, NY 10010
 (212) 929-1200

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