Is it Chelsea or is it Flatiron? Others call this particular area of Manhattan, located North of 23rd Street - South of 34th Street - East of 8th Avenue, and West of 5th Avenue, the "flower district." But as far as I'm concerned, the verdict is still out. I can say this with confidence because I am a resident of the no-borhood in question. A "no-borhood" is a part of town that, for some reason or another, has not yet received its proper nickname. Perhaps my 'hood is still trying to find its own identity among Chelsea and Flatiron, its iconic neighbors...
Nuela, one of the no-borhood's newest restaurants, is located on a relatively quiet side street just off of bustling 6th Avenue. While that may sound unfortunate, think again: it happens to be a stone's throw away from Mario Batali's Italian gourmet megaplex, Eataly. I can only imagine the ample amount of foot traffic that Nuela attracts by the number of guests who pass by on their way to/from Eataly.
Having beaten Ceci to our 6:30pm dinner reservation by about 15-minutes, I decided to have a glass of wine at the bar. Forgoing my usual pinot noir, I chose a medium-bodied tempranillo, instead. Unfortunately, I found both the wine and the goblet to be on the warm side (was the glass just taken out of the dishwasher?). Meh. What did lift my spirits, however, was the heavenly gratis bar snack that was given to each patron(s): a small bowl filled with salty, crunchy corn kernels - each the size of a horse's tooth - and fried leek "strings." This homemade "snack mix" just may be worth the trip to Nuela, alone.
Moments after I had nearly consumed the entire bowl of kernels and publicly licked the salt off of my fingers, Ceci arrived. We were promptly escorted to a cozy two-top overlooking 24th Street.
As we perused the menu, it became clear to Ceci and me that the best way to experience Nuela would be to split multiple plates. And just as our minds were almost made up, a young lady approached and graced each of our bread plates with a single pao de queijo and a small communal dish of - don't quote me on this - what tasted like a mixture of honey, black pepper, butter, and maybe even a touch of yogurt. As if the doughy, cheese bread was not enough, I could have drank the accompanying "spreadable crack" with a straw.
As intended, Ceci and I went along with our original game plan of sharing multiple plates. In chronological order...
"Spicy Tuna" with crispy rice and creamy panca: have you ever dined at Momoya? If so, are you familiar with their "Crispy Rice" signature (sushi) roll? Anyway, it's one of my favorite plays on tuna - probably because it involves fried rice - and I suppose that this is what I had in mind prior to receiving Nuela's "Spicy Tuna." Basically, the dish pictured above tasted similar to many 'o sushi restaurant's spicy-tuna mixture, however, this particular blend had that lingering "How long has this stuff been around?" taste. You know, like when you start to wonder how long ago it was made. I also found the crispy, puffed rice to have almost too much texture for the creamy-ish tuna.
Shaved hearts of palm salad with smoked dates, farofa, and coconut vinaigrette: this bed of greens was almost as delightful to eat as it was to visually admire. Prior to this occasion, I had never had, much less even seen, shaved heart of palm! Ceci and I particularly enjoyed how the farofa (the grain-like topping which replaces traditional croutons) added a flirty, savory crunch.
Smoked-brisket arepas with sweet plantains, black beans, and queso blanco: now if there was one item on the entire menu that I could have ordered multiples of - excluding the pao de queijo and the bar snack, because those weren't really on the menu - then it would be the Smoked Brisket Arepas, hands down. Delicate pink ribbons of smoked beef brisket were perfectly perched atop crispy, golden corn cakes, or "arepas," that had been liberally smeared with black bean puree, queso blanco, and ripe plantain.
Short Rib "Lomo Saltado": while all of the other dishes above were "appetizer" sized, the Short Rib "Lomo Saltado" was the entree that Ceci and I chose to split. And before I make a fool of myself or the restaurant, I need to be honest with you: I forgot when it was that I fell IN LOVE with short ribs and when I fell OUT OF LOVE with short ribs. The "out of love" thing happened pretty recently, at least within the past year or so, because I keep making the mistake of ordering them. Only to realize that, at the end of each said meal, that I f-ing hate short ribs! They're gristly, virtually meatless, and never cooked properly! Unfortunately, this version brought me no closer to my days of short-rib-bliss. I felt like a 9-year old school boy/girl sitting at the dinner table pouting - using my utensils to push my meatloaf and green peas around my plate.
I tried really hard to get some decent shreds of beef off of the "rib," but I had more luck with the accompanying white rice and soy-soaked, overly-salted vegetables and French fries that sat below the meat. This made me appreciate and long for the authentic version of the "lomo saltado" that I was so fortunate to experience in Peru and Ecuador in 2009. Sigh.
And just like the no-borhood in which it resides, perhaps Nuela is still looking for its place amongst its iconic neighbors.