“Do you know how to make a mojito?” asked a woman at the bar.
“Sure, I do,” replied the bartender with a grin. “I watched the video last night.”
That was a joke. In truth, Rayuela’s impressive cocktail list, compiled by Junior Merino, formerly of the Modern, serves up some terrific Latin-inspired concoctions, made with pisco, tequila and mezcal (the one with the worm in the bottle), along with caipirinhas, mojitos and sangrias mixed to order—not left sitting in a jug on the side of the bar.
But no cocktail list would be complete without a couple of odd-sounding combinations. Sherry with pomegranate and Cherry Heering liqueur, anyone? Instead I ordered a watermelon-lemongrass mojito, which was not too sweet but minty and refreshing, exactly right for a hot night. (The strange pairings sometimes work, too: Try the drink made with pear vodka and the barest hint of maraschino, topped with a sage leaf.)
The restaurant, which sits on a wide, bleak stretch of boulevard on the Lower East Side, is very much a scene, especially for cocktails, and it’s a magnet for young, pretty women, many of whom seem to come in groups and dine together. One evening I felt I was in the middle of a large sorority party as I looked around the packed dining room.
Rayuela is owned by chef Máximo Tejada (Patria, Lucy Latin Kitchen) and restaurateurs Hector Sanz and Paul Hernandez. The name, which means “hopscotch,” is taken from the title of the 1963 experimental novel by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar. Just as Hopscotch invites the reader to work through the novel in a linear or nonlinear way, the diner is encouraged to jump around Rayuela’s menu, which travels in a dizzying fashion all over Latin America, from Peru to Ecuador, and across the ocean to Spain.
The hopscotch theme is also echoed in the pattern of the gray slate tiles of the bar, the iron-framed window panes and the white wooden boxes, divided into grids holding candles, that hang along the walls of the bilevel restaurant. The rooms are airy and spacious, with beamed wooden ceilings, bare brick walls and white linen curtains floating from rails separating the tables, which gives an air of privacy. A gnarled olive tree brought in from California branches out from the center of the downstairs dining room through to the second floor, where there is a skylight. Instead of chairs, there are green love seats and banquettes strewn with pillows.
“Have you dined with us before?” asked the waiter when we’d sat down upstairs. That question always gives me the sinking feeling that I’m going to be told what to do. At Rayuela, you should be so lucky: It would’ve taken our waiter half the evening to explain the menu, which is enormous and confusing. He did explain that the chef calls his cooking estilo libre Latino, or “free-style Latin” cuisine, and that we could start with a selection of ceviches and tapas, before moving onto main courses such as paella, Cuban pork and rib eye a la parilla. Beyond that he could only suggest an order of guacamole for the table while we navigated through the offerings. A good idea: It was laced with crabmeat, shrimp and cilantro and had a subtle kick of chili. The pan de bono—Colombian rolls made with yucca flour, cornmeal and Mexican queso—were also wonderful, puffy and grainy and threaded with creamy white cheese.
There are around a dozen ceviches to choose from, and many of them are made with fruit juices. Hamachi, doused with a wasabi-citrus sauce, is served under an unnecessary shower of julienne vegetables. Diced tuna arrives in a cocktail glass—a refreshing mix, if a little baroque—with diced watermelon and calamari in a lemongrass citrus sauce; shrimp is tossed with tamarind citrus, jicama and chili. Also notable are the sea urchin and merluza (hake) with grapefruit, and the snapper in ginger soy with avocado.
The main courses have Latin accents, and they work very well without seeming contrived. Pink slices of duck, marinated with sugar cane that delivers a lovely crusty skin, come with a yellow corn arepa under a confit of leg. Pork, white and tender as suckling pig, is topped with squares of crackling. Arroz con pollo is made with paprika rice laced with apple and chicken sausage, and the rice on the paella is a rich green from pureed cilantro, spinach and peas. Chorizo and clams garnish the perfectly cooked snapper in a creamy white wine lemon sauce with yucca.
The desserts were less impressive: The lemon tart arrived under a sticky sweet meringue on a ginger crust, and an apricot marmalade tart was cloying, although the tangerine sorbet with it had a nice tang.
The wine list contains over 200 bottles, with some interesting choices from lesser-known vineyards in Latin America and Spain. The sommelier is helpful, and the prices are low. But service can be slow, with long waits between courses.
Not that anyone particularly notices. After dinner, outside the restaurant five young women were standing on Allen Street, sharing a pack of Marlboros, oblivious to the stares of two men who lingered for a while before they went inside.