R5 A Hot Zone of Cool

At first, the news was forbidding: a Nuevo Latino restaurant going into the awkward Steam Eat space on the Post Road, the one that’s tucked under sidewalk-crowding condos, overlooking a car dealership. And isn’t Nuevo Latino cuisine a busted ’90s trend, interred in the trend graveyard with comfort food, brewpubs, and dessert bars? The restaurant is risky in many ways, but, ultimately, at Cienega, the risks pays off—con gusto.

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    Cienega’s space is a nightmare that’s been transformed into a dream, where its shallow, wide volume is celebrated by masterful strokes of modern design. One long wall is horizontally slashed by a lit panel, effectively mimicking a horizon, which carries into a glass slit that offers a teasing glimpse into the restaurant’s kitchen. Rough-cut white stone walls soar into shadowy ceiling recesses, while a blurred landscape in slate sea hues lends a dreamy sense of tranquility. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, as they sit to their buttery amuse of pandebonos (Colombian cheese breads), that Cienega’s owners, Pedro Muñoz and Vivian Torres, are both practicing architects. Cienega is the husband/wife team’s second restaurant venture—critically successful Luz, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, is their first.

    Chef Jorge Adriazola, formerly of Sushi Samba and Patria in Manhattan, oversees the kitchens at both Luz and Cienega. He brings a revisionist’s eye to a variety of Latino dishes that, at first glance, seem familiar. A starter of “cubanito,” for instance— a play on a Cuban sandwich—arrives as a quartet of breadless, deliciously crisp-shelled pork roulades, whose melting, bacony shells yield to molten Swiss cheese and pickles. Delicious pickles (this time strawberry) as well as a slaw of pickled celery and cucumber also accompany a lobster ceviche. We may have wished for larger lobster chunks, but this dish’s briny salt and acid were ideally poised—and exactly what we wanted on this sultry night.

    Wisely, Cienega’s bar slings the classic Latino resort cocktails, with Pisco sours (Chile and Peru), margaritas (Mexico), Caipirinhas (Brazil), mojitos (Cuba), coladas (Puerto Rico), and sangria (Spain) rounding out the spread. While Cienega’s cocktails were mostly fine, on average, they were dialed toward the American love of sugar. After a survey, we settled on Cienega’s thoughtful by-the-glass wine list. Favorites included a crisp San Neval Albariño from Spain, and a soulful Luigi Bosca Malbec, not surprisingly from the region of Mendoza, Argentina.

    Chef Adriazola’s chupe was the sort of dish that causes reviewers pain. Having ordered the Peruvian chowder twice (because it was so delicious), we could not, in all honesty, order it again. The chupe looked like liquid sunlight, saffron-tinged and silken, while its sweet, golden corn was offset by a lingering chili tickle. Perfectly cooked shrimp snapped at every bite, while an oozy poached quail’s egg added extra luxury—it’s a killer.

    There were some off-notes in the meals, like a trio of over-salted and slightly greasy empanadas, and a main of the dry toasted Spanish pasta, fideos, served with an assortment of shellfish. The pasta, cooked in salty seafood broth, was (not surprisingly) too salty, plus over-boiled and mushy and studded with unappealing, dry lobster and crabmeat shreds. Not even the juicy clams and mussels gracing this bowl could save it from failure. Also, a thin, tail-end salmon steak al pimienton (red-pepper-glazed Alaskan king salmon) landed cooked to a uniform, opaque peach—this is a few seconds past the ideal, coral-tinged center.

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    Yet mains like cordero ron y caña redeemed any flubs. In it, an armada of succulent, up-tilted baby lamb chops are slicked with spicy Caribbean rum and cane juice. They’re served in sweet, carnivorous glory with a starchy goat-cheese/malanga mash and tangy huacatay sauce. Sure, it’s just a twist on meat and potatoes—but the malanga (a relative of the potato-like tuber, taro) and the huacatay (a pungent ancient Incan herb) offer an intriguing alternative. Unfortunately, the lamb chops’ one fault were their dated “vertical plating”—a trend whose origins are often attributed to that mid-’80s icon, Gotham Bar and Grill. The plating style (which, to modern diners, is as jarring as Dynasty-era big hair and shoulder pads) was echoed in the bunny-ear plantain chips stabbed into Cienega’s lubina. Once removed—pluck, pluck—the food was delicious: perfectly cooked, plantain-wrapped striped bass, served with sweet plantain mash whose sugar was nicely offset by acidic lobster escabeche.

    Desserts are well worth saving room for, especially (it must be said) a slightly outdated, deconstructed Key lime pie, where the plate’s toasted swoosh of meringue made an alpine bed for a sphere of tart lime curd and Graham-coated vanilla ice cream. We also loved a light tres leche cake, whose sponge was soaked in banana liquor, and whose plate was studded
with soft, buttery, caramelized bananas. Admittedly, we winced when another
busted trend reared its ugly head in the form of the last dessert’s dulce de leche foam. It seems almost shocking in Cienega’s stylish digs, but—in, out—judgments were all lost in one sip of Ron Zacapa Centenario rum and a look around Cienega on a warm summer night.

Cienega ★★★

179 Main St, New Rochelle
(914) 632-4000; cienegarestaurant.com
Hours: lunch, Mon to Fri 12:30-3:30 pm; dinner, Sun to Wed 4-10 pm, Thurs to Sat 4-11 pm; brunch, Sunday 11 am-4 pm
Appetizers: $6-$14; entrées: $19-$29; desserts: $7-$9

★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good
★★—Good ★—Fair

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Photo by Cathy Pinsky

Fragrant, saffron-haunted cream forms the base of this silken, sunny chupe, while a soft-cooked quail’s egg tips the scales with added luxury.

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