¡H-Ola! Godfather of Nuevo Latino
Is Back, With a Low-Carb Menu A friend of mine was once on a train in Bolivia when it hit a cow. The passengers gave a whoop of joy and dived for their machetes. Within minutes they had butchered the animal, wrapped the pieces in newspaper and tossed them on the luggage racks, where they dripped in the heat for the rest of the journey.
Having dinner at Ola, Douglas Rodriguez’s new restaurant, I too felt that I was sitting in a stalled train somewhere in Latin America. The long, narrow room is like a dining car, and four of us were seated on the upper level in one of the brightly striped booths, under a ceiling so low you could almost reach up and touch it. The noise, abetted by the Spanish tiles on the floor and the pressed tin on the ceiling, was as deafening as if we had just hit a cow. And in a sense, I suppose, we had hit a cow. The chef, who has been on the Atkins diet, is now into “pure protein”: mixed grill, lamb chops with huacatay sauce, beef with chimichurri, and pork with the wonderful crispy crackling known as chicharron.
Douglas Rodriguez is a celebrity chef, the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine. His exuberant style of cooking, with its bold combinations of exotic ingredients, has spawned a whole school of restaurants, many of them headed by chefs who trained in his kitchen. He blew into town nine years ago with Patria, where he introduced such outrageous dishes as snail empanadas, ceviche in black ink marinade and, for a dessert (pre-Bloomberg era), a giant ashtray holding a chocolate cigar with marzipan ash, alongside a sugar matchbook with real matches. His food was exhilarating, wild, over-the-top, and it made even the most jaded of New Yorkers sit up and pay attention. At his next two restaurants, Chicama and Pipa-both of which were lively, loud and fun-ceviche and Spanish tapas held center stage. And just three months ago, Mr. Rodriguez came out with a ceviche cookbook. Now, at Ola (the name stands for “Of Latin America”), which opened in March, he’s serving some of his greatest hits, with a focus on low-carbohydrate dishes (you get olives on the table but no bread) and, of course, pure protein.
But, I wonder, are the fireworks beginning to fizzle? The food at Ola is uneven, and in some cases surprisingly bland, despite Mr. Rodriguez’s clever ideas. One ceviche consisted of pieces of mackerel marinated in lime juice and tossed in a creamy horseradish sauce garnished with crispy sage and pieces of green apple. The concept sounded great, but the fish didn’t have much taste, and the other ingredients didn’t make much of an impression either. Tuna, fluke and salmon in white soy with basil and sesame was flat. A fine black bean soup came with crispy rice croquettes that were all about texture-crunchy skin over soft kernels-but had no taste. Deep-fried empanadas, stuffed with clams, spinach and goat cheese, were also more about texture than flavor. They came in a cast-iron skillet with a baroque selection of accompaniments: chorizo, bean sprouts and red peppers. Why bean sprouts?
Mr. Rodriguez is sometimes better when he keeps it simple and lets the ingredients speak for themselves, like the salad he makes with hearts of palm and fresh lumps of crab, or warm artichokes with garbanzo bean purée and, just for good measure, chorizo chips. Too bad the grilled octopus was so dry, because it came with lovely fat, creamy Peruvian lima beans with lemon aioli.
But the old Rodriguez shone through in many of the main courses. Chilean sea bass, sitting majestically on a bed of smoky chorizo rice garnished with a spicy crab salpicon, looked like an iceberg run aground. It was superb. How did they get such a crisp skin and yet keep the fish so moist inside?
The waiter skillfully removed (in one piece) the head and bone of a whole grilled dorado, leaving the rest of the fish on the plate like a discarded jacket. But the fish, even though perfectly cooked and extremely fresh, didn’t look very appealing. It was served in a murky Peruvian seafood sauce that looked like dredged-up mud. Once you got past the visuals, however, it had a lovely spicy kick and was generously laced with shrimp, scallops and calamari.
Cheese does the job of potatoes in Mr. Rodriguez’s “pure protein” dishes. Feta came with perfectly grilled lamb chops set upon a bed of crispy lamb shank and served with a sauce made with huacatay, a Peruvian mint that added a sharp, almost vinegary taste, reminding me of English mint sauce. The pork with thin, greaseless cracklings was great, its Cuban oregano lime sauce cutting the richness of the meat. I’ve never had better crackling.
Chicken, cut in paper-thin slices, was generously swathed in a creamy white sherry sauce sprinkled with truffles and mushrooms. Two juicy chicken sausages and breaded cachucha peppers stuffed with melted cheese completed the picture.
The wine list is mostly Latin and New World (apart from champagne), with no great bargains. The red Malbec, an Argentinian wine by the glass, was pretty chewy. But a bottle of the Catena for $45 was a good choice, fruity and smooth.
The desserts ended the meal on a high note. A velvety cheese cake made with goat cheese, topped with a smooth paste of guava and served with crema nata ice cream and poached prunes in Grand Marnier. Vanilla bean panna cotta, served with queso ice cream, is listed as a sugar-free dessert. It’s made with a sweetener called Splenda instead of sugar. The pièce de résistance is supposed to be the fondue, made with dulce de leche, a rich caramel into which you dunk pieces of fresh fruit and cookies-churros, chocolate truffles and mini brownies. It was fun, but the real winner for me was the chocolate crêpes. They were folded in neat triangles like pocket handkerchiefs, oozing chocolate and topped with caramelized banana-not quite up to snuff with the chocolate cigar, but pretty great. And that more or less sums up Ola in my book: close, but no cigar.