Newest of the ‘New Latinos’: Trendy but Friendly Ideya

It was a freezing late afternoon in SoHo, and some friends and I had been going around the galleries before taking our children to dinner in Chinatown. (The answer to noisy children is to give them a taste of their own medicine.) But as we walked up West Broadway, we passed Ideya, a new Latino restaurant, which, although empty at that hour, looked warm and inviting. We stepped inside and asked the pretty blonde hostess if we could return for an early dinner with three children. “As long as you’re out by 9 o’clock,” she replied, clearly no veteran of meals with young kids.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be gone long before then,” I said.

We returned a little after 7 P.M. Salsa music was blasting from the speakers, and the tables were filling up with lean young women in spaghetti-strap dresses and men in day-old beards ordering exotic cocktails. We parked the children on a banquette covered with jaunty blue and white lawn-chair webbing, where they set to work on their Magic collectable cards, Bendits construction toys and a bowl of plantain chips. A round of caipirhinas (a Brazilian drink made from sugar cane liquor), some vile sticky drinks for the children (“pure sugar,” said my son, smacking his lips), all swiftly drained, made us feel, for a while at least, that we were in a bar by the beach.

Ideya is a cheerful, friendly place, so noisy that you could scream or bang your knives and forks on the table and probably go unnoticed. It looks like a bodega, with white walls (half-plastered in patches, half-brick) and a white ceramic-tiled bar topped with a long wooden plank. A small string bag of fruit hangs over one corner where a refrigerated display case is filled with bottles of sodas in day-glo colors. An enormous naïf painting of Latin scenes by a graffiti artist called Daze dominates the room, divided into panels showing a Brazilian beach (recognizable by a Botero-like figure climbing out of a thong bikini), a Peruvian street, Rio at Carnival time.

“It’s on rollers,” said our waiter. “When we want to change the mood, we pull it down. He did so and we gazed at our reflections in a sheet of Mylar. The youngest child was getting tired. “I want a grilled cheese sandwich!” he wailed.

“They have something just like it,” said his mother. “You’ll love it, it has cheese and corn and comes from Venezuela.”

He did not look convinced.

Rice and beans and ropa vieja have been around for years in New York, but a new kind of Latin cooking, introduced by chef Douglas Rodriguez when he opened Patria nearly a decade ago, has finally swung into fashion. I was dazzled by Mr. Rodriguez’s innovative ways with exotic Latin textures and tastes, and, in the past few months, several new restaurants serving this kind of food have opened. Ideya is owned by two women from Match (which explains the trendy clientele): Lauryn Small, a former Ford model who also once worked at the Independent, and Tamar Kuznik, who is half-Brazilian and used to work at Mesa Grill. The chef, Christopher Rios, comes from a Puerto Rican background and was most recently chef de cuisine at Hot Tomato.

Service was slow and the children, already deprived of their spring rolls and spareribs, were getting restless. But then we were off to a good start with a plate of juicy giant camarones, or grilled prawns, served with a “cilantro” pesto on a bed of salad greens tossed in a mango vinaigrette. The Venezuelan “arepas,” corn cakes made with whole kernels and filled with manchego cheese, were also delicious, served with an escabeche of wild mushrooms and avocado salad. The children were disappointed, however, in the empanadas, pastry turnovers filled with duck, yucca and carrots. They liked the spicy roasted chili and sour orange “ketchup,” but correctly observed that the turnovers were too starchy and needed more duck.

I usually go for anything made with salt cod, but the bacalao fritters here were disappointingly dry and rather hard. At this point the youngest child, who was 5, had a tantrum. “I don’t want fritters. I want a grilled cheese sandwich!”

“Try some of these lovely Cuban meatballs,” said his mother, looking nervously around the room. No one paid any attention; no one could hear.

“They’re dry,” said his older brother helpfully.

And they were. The food at Ideya is uneven, although the kitchen is clearly trying very hard. A grilled Argentine skirt steak was a bit tough, but the children made short shrift of the hot, crisp fries. Roast pork was a bit vinegary but came with an interesting apple and tomato salad and roasted boniato (a white sweet potato). Cocoa- and cinnamon-dusted breast of duck was a better choice, served rare with stuffed plantains and a poblano-pepper-and-red-wine sauce.

Chilean sea bass was nicely cooked, if a bit flavorless, with a warm salad of purple potatoes. I also liked the snapper braised in cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane liquor), served over a potatolike purée made with malanga (a pinkish root like a sweet potato that had a nutty flavor), accompanied by a crunchy slaw of cherimoya and chayote.

As we ate, the noise level rose higher and higher. We had a bite of a chocolate banana cake that wasn’t very good and escaped to the tranquility of West Broadway. “Meals with small children don’t just end,” I said as we staggered up the street, “they disintegrate.”

A few days later, I returned for brunch, which was quieter and more laid-back. We nursed perfectly spiced Bloody Marys while our waiter, looking ever more puzzled and forlorn, kept wandering around with a plate of Cuban meatballs, trying to find a taker. “We didn’t order them!” said my son. “Remember, they were dry.” What we had ordered was a pressed Cuban sandwich made in the traditional way with pickles, ham and Swiss cheese, and very good it was, too. My shrimp salad was another story. The shrimp were fine, so was the avocado, but the salad greens were a dreadful, limp pile that tasted as though it had been soaked in brine. My son’s eggs Benedict were terrific: The poached eggs burst seductively over delicious arepas, and were served with hashed brown malanga. The maître d’ was terrifically apologetic about the meatballs and wouldn’t let us pay for the Cuban sandwich.

Ideya may be noisy, but it could not be friendlier, and, if you order carefully, you can eat well. After a few of their tropical cocktails (or a bottle of wine from the interesting list, mostly from Spain, Chile or Argentina), you might even convince yourself you’re far better off than at some hushed temple of gastronomy where naught is heard but munching sounds.

IDEYA

*

349 West Broadway, between Broome and Grand Streets

625-1441

Dress:Spaghetti straps, day-old beards

Noise level:Raucous

Wine list: Mostly from Spain, Chile and Argentina, well priced

Credit cards:All major

Price range: Lunch main courses $7 to $10, dinner $14 to $21, light menu $3.50 to $10

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday 12:30 P.M. to 4 P.M.

Light menu: Monday to Friday 1 P.M. to 6 P.M., Saturday and Sunday 4 P.M. to 6 P.M.

Dinner: Sunday to Wednesday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M., Thursday to Saturday to midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor