I must already be missing warm weather as I keep finding myself in restaurants celebrating warmer climates. And after hearing word this week that Winter 2009-10 is predicted to be one of the coldest in history, I’m starting to resent my sweaters and coats a little earlier on this year. Whether it’s rumor or not, I wasn’t quite able to warm up last week. It’s that in between time of year - definitely too cool for air conditioning, but not quite cold enough for heat. In the cinder block walled office I work in, the cold air certainly knows how to linger. And, when Conde Nast decides to break my heart and announces the end of the Gourmet era, it may as well be below freezing outside. In times like these as technology can be blamed for the demise of print as much as for the failure to turn up the heat, I turn to food to warm me up. Just thinking back to my meal at Rayuela quickly gets the blood flowing.
There is an energy in this Latin American restaurant that comes from much more than it’s southern location in the lower east side. Despite the moderately expensive menu, this is one of those spots that I would eagerly recommend to group diners. The dining options both downstairs and upstairs are conducive to large parties with its long tables and booths that actually create a designated area separate from other diners. That will also give you a chance to sample from the ceviche, the appetizers, and the main courses - all excellent for sharing.
I always remember my mother saying, "don’t fill up on bread” at the start of any dining out experience. I was usually starved and ready to eat just about anything, but was always glad I listened to her once my actual meal arrived. Well, sorry mom, but at Rayuela, I’m going to encourage all to disobey my mother: eat the bread! I don’t necessarily hope that you fill up on it since you will definitely want to enjoy the food soon to follow. However, this “bread” is absolutely delicious. While it looks like a good old-fashioned roll, this is a much denser, richer version - almost a sort of cornmeal-roll combination. Whatever the secret, I was for once extremely jealous of my pregnant friend as she had the excuse of eating for two that night. As I started to go for a second piece, I did hear a faint echo of my mother’s voice.
It’s probably a good thing I partially listened to her as even the guacamole starting off our meal was unique. This had a nice kick and was combined with grilled shrimp. I also recommend starting with the red snapper ceviche marinated in a ginger soy citrus sauce served with a rainbow of julienne peppers, cucumbers, jalapenos, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. While I was drawn to the jumbo lump crab meat salad, I actually would not recommend it - the flavors were much milder than any of the other dishes on the menu. Each and every main course, on the other hand, was bold, rich and and full of flavor. If you are in the mood for a fish, I highly recommend the grilled Chilean sea bass with manchego yuca mangu served with a chorizo-salsa verde salad. But, I would not miss out on the meats. Breast of duck is marinated in sugar cane with a confit of duck, spinach, asparagus, and guava sauce and served over a yellow corn arepa. And you cannot go wrong with the grilled beef tenderloin with oven roasted potatoes, mushrooms, diced spanish onions, pork belly, and cabrales fondue.
While I’m quite certain the mini heat wave on Sunday was no more than a tease, I have a feeling the cold will very soon be here to stay. And, most sadly, the departure of Ruth Reichl and the rest of the Gourmet crew is definitely a cold reality. Food writers have got some serious shoes to fill especially as the colder weather usually keeps us closer to home and draws us to the kitchen. As I now have fewer reasons to stay in and with no warm weather getaways in the line up for (at least) the upcoming month, I plan to take advantage of the Rayuelas of the city. I love seasons - and I have no doubt that it’s because of food that I get through the coldest of them.
165 Allen St.
New York, NY 10002
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):