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Nuevo Latino Breaks Out

Some trends stand the test of time

John Mariani
Posted: December 6, 2000

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Nuevo Latino Breaks Out

Some trends stand the test of time

By John Mariani

If I had to pick one current food fad I believe has a chance of becoming an enduring American genre, it would most certainly be "nuevo Latino" cuisine, which has already given a 21st century edge to the culinary traditions of the Caribbean and Central and South America. Pop stars like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin may come and go, but there's no doubt that Latino cooking will continue to evolve as the nation's Latino population soars.

This isn't authentic "ethnic" food. It's unlikely that the cooks of Havana are whipping up grilled duck breast with tamarind glaze and roasted squash picadillo -- a dish at Isla, one of New York's hot, new Cuban restaurants. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a place in Lima that serves salmon ravioli wrapped in pineapple with quinoa grain and a green-avocado sauce, as it's done at Café Atlantico, in Washington, D.C. Such are the dazzling twists and turns on tradition being performed at places like Nacional 27 and Mas, in Chicago; Destino in San Francisco; Fandango in Seattle; Cibucan in Philadelphia; Americas in Houston; Ortanique in Coral Gables, Fla.; Ciudad in Dallas; and Chicama, Sushi Samba, Vandam, Meigas and Calle Ocho, in New York. And much to their credit, the nuevo Latino restaurants are bringing in the best Spanish, Portuguese, Argen-tinean and Chilean small-estate wines, which non-Latino restaurants have largely ignored for years.

It was a Cuban-American, Douglas Rodriguez, who really got things going when he opened Patria in New York five years ago. Rodriguez, a big, ebullient, mustachioed fellow with a knack for self-promotion, pulled out all the stops at Patria, mixing Peruvian, Brazilian, Cuban and Guatamalan ingredients, such as boniato, chiles, yuca and black beans. He used Spanish cheeses and plenty of guava and banana in his highly colorful, towering, intensely spicy creations.

Last year, Rodriguez left Patria to open two new places in New York -- the casual Chicama, specializing in ceviches and rotisserie items, and the tapas bar Pipa -- and a nuevo Latino eatery in Philadelphia, to be called Alma de Cuba. Yet Patria, now overseen by executive chef Andrew DiCataldo, chef de cuisine Jason Bunin and wine director Jorge Liloy, continues to rule in Manhattan.

As is usually the case at nuevo Latino restaurants, the appetizers are the most exciting items on the menu. Ceviches are a standout at Patria, starting with the Ceviche Chifa of tuna with lemongrass, lime leaves, ginger-infused young-coconut water, red chiles and Thai basil, the combination of which forms a tangy bath for the rich red fish. A more straightforward (at least for Patria), yet equally delicious choice is the Empanada de Queso, in which manchego and goat's cheese are roasted over sweet eggplant and tomato with spinach and a light vinaigrette of Sherry and black olives.

After such sexy starters, it's best to go for a simple main course like the suckling-pig loin chops with yuca, red-bean broth and green-apple sauce. Steer clear of the over-the-top offerings like the plantain-coated mahi mahi served with fufu (mashed plantain with ground pork), pomelo horseradish mojo and a lily salad.

Patria's 600-label wine list is a proud manifesto of the best wines coming out of Iberia and South America. Liloy claims to have met more than 80 percent of the winemakers whose products are represented here. There are rarities like the Catena Alta Luca Vineyard Chardonnay 1997 from Argentina ($90) and the Belondrade y Lurton Verdejo Rueda 1997 from Spain ($75). There are 12 different bottlings from the great Spanish winery Vega Sicilia, a fine array of dessert wines, Sherries and Madeiras, all of which give Patria its clout as a wine destination.

Although Patria may be the most influential nuevo Latino restaurant, the food served at Pasion, in a colorful, seductively lit dining room in Philadelphia, is more refined. Argentina-born chef Guillermo Pernot is a master of form. Despite his relish for high flavor, he's capable of great subtlety. His roast pork with Chino Cubano slaw showcases the pork, not the spices. Pompano, which rarely travels well north of Florida, is delicious here, roasted and served with smoked shallots, mango sauce and a spicy warm-spinach salad.

The wine list at Pasion is broken down into "dry, crisp, aromatic whites," "Chardonnay and rich-styled whites," "elegant, silky reds," "rustic, spicy reds" and "powerful, full-flavored reds." The selections complement Pernot's cooking -- especially wines like the lush Steele Syrah Shooting Star 1998 ($50) and the crisp Lusco Albari¿o Rias Baixas 1999 ($48). The Sangria, white or red, makes a wonderful opener for a festive meal.

Spurred by the success of the nuevo Latino genre in the United States, restaurants in Central and South America, as well as in the Caribbean, are beginning to make it their own. In Mexico, where the cuisines of Yucatan, Monterey, Chihuahua and other regions have long been sacrosanct, young chefs at the big hotels and resorts in Mexico City, Puerta Vallarta, and Cancún have begun to explore nuevo Latino options.

Curiously enough, one of Mexico's leaders is Maryland-born Glenn Eastman, at the spectacularly situated new Four Seasons at Punta Mita (literally "the end of the earth"), on Mexico's Pacific Coast. Eastman, whose wife is Mexican, mastered Mexican regional styles when serving as executive chef at the Four Seasons in Mexico City and the Hyatt Regency in Acapulco. He also picked up a great deal of knowledge about Mediterranean and Creole traditions when working in Jerusalem and New Orleans, respectively.

Eastman has worked hard to develop sources both in Mexico and abroad for the best ingredients. This is evident in appetizers such as a Pacific Coast red-snapper sashimi served with a fiery salsa and crisp tostadas heaped with smoked marlin, salsa and avocado. His ceviche is made with jumbo prawns marinated in citrus with tomatoes, chiles, onions and cilantro, and Chilean salmon is smoked over tequila-producing agave roots, then garnished and served with cilantro-pesto bagel chips.

The best main dishes are terrific ideas, executed with finesse. A roasted veal chop, mildly seasoned with adobo sauce, is served with a creamy poblano-chile sauce and charred-corn salsa. Charred skirt steak is served over baby red potatoes marinated with red onion and tomato finished with fresh panela cheese. Seared Baja California sea bass fillet is served with fried plantains and a Key-lime chutney. There is even a fine cheese course -- unusual in Mexico -- and desserts are imaginative, like crunchy napoleon with Key-lime pastry cream and fresh fruit.

Needless to say, this is food with a great deal of dazzle, which lends itself to the way Americans want to eat right now. Whether it's tapas and ceviche with a margarita on the side or a collection of colorful dishes shared family-style, it's all easy to love. Nuevo Latino cooking, like Italian food, is well on its way to becoming a familiar, important element of American gastronomy.

John Mariani's new book is Dictionary of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman Books).

For the complete article, please see the Dec. 15, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 146.

Four Seasons Resort, Punta Mita, Bahia de Banderas, Nayarit, Mexico
Telephone (011) 52-329-16000.
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées, $28 to $38
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

211 S. 15th St., Philadelphia
Telephone (215) 875-9895
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées, $18 to $29
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

250 Park Ave. S., New York
Telephone (212) 777-6211
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Dinner, prix fixe $59
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

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