Wednesday, November 4, 2015


On a desolate stretch of Ninth Avenue, Oovina garners a lot of attention.  The  cobalt neon framing the restaurant's glass facade showcases a thatch of white-washed ivy garland festooning the ceiling, creating an impression much more impactful than the square footage of the tiny restaurant itself.  Passersby seemed to be attracted by what I perceived a rather gaudy
 display,  but what Oovina lacks in
subtlety, it strives to make up for in flavor.  In many cases it succeeds, with its Guatemalan-inspired tapas menu from chef Giovanni Morales of the beloved Market Cafe.

Oovina derives its name from a complicated flow-chart of oenophilic references and phonetic Spanish, and the menu follows suit with a sort playful inauthenticity.   Cooked simply, the food is aggressively seasoned, perhaps to a fault, but never apologetically... and never with gluten.  Gnocchi are crafted from cassava, corn and rice are prominent in Latin cuisine, so the concession (which will appeal to many) does not seem forced.   Garlic and chilis prevail, with many dishes cooked in wine to complement the diverse list of global varietals.  Our server/sommelier, despite his apparent youth, was surprisingly accomodating with the wines, guiding us to a funky, fruity Soave and a sweeter, winier Chenin Blanc to replace the riesling which they had run out of.

We began with sauteed artichokes in a kale pesto pungent with dried herbs, five of them served up on a wooden plank.  I'm not sure these were remarkably better than a best quality preserved artichoke one could find in a specialty store, but they were tasty.  Same kind of thing for the brussels sprouts: I could've steamed some of these guys and whipped up a simple brown
 butter (if I had on hand some champagne with which to spike the sauce), so in terms of complexity there might be a little left to be desired.  A good home cook could replicate a lot of these dishes themselves, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  And everything we tried at Oovina was tasty and satisfying, if not revolutionary.

Chicken tacos, on the other hand,  might be harder to recreate: flavorful white meat pulled into shreds, and dripping with a cilantro slaw... that although the menu specified all the other taco varieties came with red (there is a tofu vegan, grilled shrimp or steak, and crispy pork loin) the chicken was supposed to come with a green cabbage, but ours was red as well.  Speaking of
 color, disregard the terribly distorted hues in these pictures: an annoying pink overhead light shone down on our table, which while matching the casino-esque pink under-lit bar, threw the color profile off on most of my photos.

After each dish, which were each served one at a time, the table cleared before the next would arrive, our server inquired "how is everything tasting?" which is a rookie move, but might've been forgivable had it occurred once.  After EVERY dish,  it became irksome.  Had we not so much time between courses to ponder this, it might've gone unnoticed, but luckily I was in great company, so the extensive lapses occurring in between became an enjoyable conversation interludes.  A place like this, I'd prefer to have a bit of bounty on the table simultaneously and the tempo picked up demonstrably; it would add a more festive atmosphere that I think is what Oovina is going for, but instead the pace is waltz instead of disco.  Next up came a super salty, but nostalgically homey stewed beef, with chunks of carrot and potato alongside tender bites of beef in a rich consomme floating over white rice.  Aside from its salinity, the broth was deep and meaty, a perfect antidote to the cold night air that was starting to push through the windows we were seated next to.
  Come the real plummeting temperatures of deep winter, these front tables may become uninhabitable.  But at any rate, out repast was almost complete at this point, as our waiter brought back menus for dessert.... or wait, was it?  Didn't we order the Shrimp Ajillo?  Yes, we did:  a small oversight.  But the kitchen shot it out as quickly as possible, and although we probably didn't even need that one last savory dish for satiety purposes, the garlicky, oily, sriracha-spiked sauce almost compensated for the fact that the shrimp were slightly overcooked.  The masa cake they hovered around was delicious, though: pleasantly lumpy and nubby with corn, it crumbled loosely into the bold sauce, making the shrimp almost superfluous.

Like the riesling and the green cabbage, they had also run short of one of the desserts, but I was leaning towards the flan-brulee, anyways. I'm not sure why it was hyphenated.  I'm not sure, either, why it was so... .firm.  This was the densest, sturdiest flan I've ever had, actually a lot more like cheesecake than the gently wobbly versions to which I am accustomed.  Made a sort of weird counter to the crisp-bruleed sugar top, and the raspberry-pomegranate preserve underneath was so jammy and sweet it left me hankering for an English muffin.  But by far the standout dish of
 the night were the Rellenitos Colocha- fruity steamed plantains split and stuffed with cinnamon sweetened black bean puree.  The recipe was apparently rustled from Morales' aunt, which she was reluctant to share.  We're glad she did.  More dishes like these, with an elemental simplicity and soulful appeal, would increase the restaurant's appeal.  Although that might fight with the Vegas-worthy decor and the convoluted name, but therein lies Oovina's strength.

496 Ninth Avenue, Hell's Kitchen
(between 37th & 38th streets)
 tel. 212. 967.3892

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