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EATING LA VIDA LOCA

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The Brooklyn edition of the recently published "Zagat Survey" lists three restaurants under the heading "Nuevo Latino": Beso in Park Slope, The Latin Grill in Carroll Gardens and Sol in Fort Greene.

To understand Nuevo Latino cuisine, I visited two of their recommendations: Latin Grill, described by Zagat surveyors as a "Nuevo Latino newcomer," which serves Cuban and Mexican cooking, and Sol, a "Nuevo Latino" restaurant serving Caribbean-fusion dishes offering "hearty cooking and quite the bar scene."

Which raises the question: what is Nuevo Latino? Is the term so broad that it encompasses South and Central America and the Caribbean?

Starting on the Internet, I typed "Nuevo Latino" into a search engine. Seconds later stories of chefs cooking in the "Pan-Latin," "New World," "New Caribbean," "New Floridian," "Global Cuisine" and even "Floribbean" style appeared on the screen.

"Floribbean?"

The contraction of Floridian and Caribbean refers mainly to the early cooking of chef Douglas Rodriquez, mentioned in every article as the "Godfather of Nuevo Latino cooking." Rodriquez, then based in southern Florida, is credited with starting the trend in the early 1990s, and coining the expression "Nuevo Latino." He, and several experimental chefs cooking in Florida, were dubbed "The Mango Gang" when they began incorporating then-exotic ingredients like passion fruit, boniato (a sweet, white potato) and Caribbean fish, such as grouper and yellowtail, with traditional black bean and rice dishes.

Rodriquez is now the chef at Chicama (named for the fishing port of Lima, Peru) and Pipa, both restaurants housed on the ground level of ABC Carpet & Home in Manhattan - itself a multi-level "Nuevo Decoro" of antique and cutting-edge modern home furnishings.

The Mango Gang’s broad palette of flavors, and the classic cooking techniques they favored, inspired chefs nationwide. Embracing the Nuevo Latino aesthetic, chefs crossed cultural boundaries with dishes like barbecued pork ribs with a guava glaze and a cocoa and cinnamon dusted roasted breast of duck served with plantains in a poblano chili and red wine sauce.

As Nuevo Latino cooking evolved, the term came to include both South America and Central America and incorporate the cooking of American-born Hispanics, with chefs serving lightened versions of a single region or a personal hybrid of several cultures.

How personal? On Rodriquez’s menu at Chicama he serves an appetizer of oven-baked saffron-orange duck confit empanada with sliced foie gras terrine and a prune sherry sauce. If that doesn’t cover all the culinary bases, then what does?

And the Brooklyn chefs labeled Nuevo Latino by Zagat? Whether their cooking was a contemporary take on one culture or a fusion of many, all the chefs exhibited finesse in technique and fearlessness in their mixing of ingredients.

The result? A culinary bravado yielding complex yet clean and vibrant dishes: an exciting, sexy salsa on a plate.

To feed Brooklyn diners ready to eat to the Latin beat, a restaurateur must offer this cuisine in settings as chic as the blonde wood and silvery green velvet banquets of Sol and as exuberant as the brightly tiled, deco-diner decor of Latin Grill.

Chefs Eric Nanevie and Kalifa Sissoko share equal billing in the kitchen of Fort Greene’s Sol. Owner Charles McMickens describes the dishes as "referencing Caribbean and Latin cooking." The cuisine "departs from sauce and stock-based Italian and French cooking by showcasing, not masking, the essence of the ingredients, with an emphasis on tropical fruits and vegetables," he said.

I would agree with Zagat’s surveyors, if they define "hearty" as satisfying, and yes, there is "quite the bar scene." What I found at Sol were exceptionally light dishes, strongly Caribbean in their flavorings, with some contemporary American pairings - fish over baby greens for example.

Nanevie and Sissoko also dip into France and Asia with combinations like codfish served over couscous with bok choy; or a sandwich (listed on the menu as a light entree) of grilled vegetables, goat cheese and a garlic and lemon aioli (a French, garlic-flavored mayonnaise) with a side of fries.

A great beginning to a meal at Sol is the curried mussels, one of the more traditional dishes on Sol’s menu. The mussels sit in a briny coconut milk broth flavored with Jamaican curry, ginger and garlic. The licorice taste of aniseed adds complexity to the broth’s flavor. Dip a piece of the restaurant’s chewy, sesame seeded rolls, served hot, into that broth, and it’s magical.

A salmon filet with a perfectly brittle, pan-seared crust was served over a fresh mix of delicate lettuces and topped with spicy mango and pineapple salsa. Salsa may seem like nothing new, but it was Rodriquez’s influence that broadened it from the watery Mexican dip served with beer and nachos, to this heady mix of sweet and spicy - a refreshing accompaniment to the richness of the fish.

Red snapper, crisp from pan sauteing and moist from a fast roast in the oven, was served with a traditional Trinidadian sauce called a brown stew. This tomato-based sauce was given heat with red peppers, complexity with rosemary and thyme and sharpened with vinegar. The snapper rested over simple mashed potatoes and a side of crisp-edged plantains.

Cooling our mouths with house-made ginger ice cream, one of a selection of ice creams and tropical fruit sorbets, made the perfect finale.

On the Mexican side of chef Arturo Tellez’ menu for the casual Latin Grill is the addictive corn on the cob rubbed with an aged, tangy cheese called cotija, as well as chili powder and lime juice. On the Cuban side, Tellez offers a pressed sandwich of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles. Things turn fusion when chicken wings are marinated in a chipotle-guava barbecue sauce and served with lime-sour cream dipping sauce.

For this "newcomer," opened last December, Tellez prepares a ceviche mariscos of shrimp and calamari "cooked" in limejuice. Ceviche, a traditional South American appetizer, has crossed over into the menus of seafood restaurants of all persuasions. Picadillo, a ground pork hash flavored with onions, garlic and tomatoes, can be served two ways: Mexican style, as a stuffing, or, as it is served here, Cuban style, over white rice with black beans.

Is Nuevo Latino here to stay or just a flash in the paella pan? Some would say the cooking was red hot a year ago, about the time that Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s careers were hitting their stride, and argue that the cooking is already on the down swing, while others would insist that the cuisine is still being discovered and may eventually become an American staple along the lines of Chinese and Italian food.

We’ll just have to eat and see.

 


Latin Grill, 254 Court St. between Kane and Degraw streets in Cobble Hill, accepts cash only. Entrees: $8.50-14.50. For reservations, call (718) 858-0309.

Sol, 229 DeKalb Ave. at Clermont Avenue in Fort Greene, accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $7.95-$17.95. For reservations, call (718) 222-1510.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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