Rayuela: What Successful Latin American Cuisine Should Be
Rayeula epitmozies slick and slinky in the ever-hip Lower East Side. The heralded youthful Latin American powerhouse plays no games with high-end cocktails, mouth-watering inventive cuisine, and a shocking authenticity amongst all the hubbub.
The discreet space on a stretch of Allen St evokes a secret garden. The multi-level space uses a beveled stone bar, lots of flora and fauna, low lighting, a small pond, and a full-size tree to mimic the magic of an interior forest. A glowing backlit bar, textured bamboo side panels, sheaths of ethereal white fabric, and an expansive exposed brick wall enhance the sexy ‘natural’ environment. If you close your eyes (or down a few of the bartender’s dangerous concoctions) and shut out the urban ambient noise, you can almost feel the rainforest vibrating around you.
For a restaurant I only discovered last week and have heard little buzz about previously, Rayuela delivers remarkably good food with many astonishing dishes and few duds. The 5-course tasting menu is the way to go, offering up a diverse array of menu highlights for just $64. The regular menu offers appetizers for $12-17 and entrees for $25-30.
The tasting menu started of fresh and spicy with a small dish of seafood stew. Large hunks of diverse fresh seafood sang in a very hot chili-inflected stew spicy enough to clear out the sinuses. A ceviche duo followed with hamachi, avocado and orange zest in a firey red wasabi citrus sauce and the ‘seven powers of the sea’ (lobster, shrimp, scallop, crabs, clams, mussels and octopus) in a green tomatillo sauce. Both were light and zingy – the first reminiscent of a spicy sushi roll and the second of seafood salsa.
The third course was a duo of seared scallop with cilantro rice in hot chili sauce and of sweet sausage, octopus, and mussel in a cream sauce. Both were rich and savory, melding spicy, sweet, and umami notes artfully. The scallop melted like butter while the octopus ‘legs’ were chewy and bold.
The highlight of the meal was the pinnacle fourth course, a duo of steak tenderloin with mushrooms and melted cheese and of sugar cane duck breast with duck confit and guava sauce over a sweet corn arepa. The tenderloin was soft, tender, and slightly charred for a smoky effect. The melted cabrales cheese ‘fondue’ over the meat enhanced the complex flavors and left us rubbing our bellies happily. The duck breast was sweet and multi-faced with soft discs of pinky red meat, a starchy and substantial corn arepa (very much unlike the fried fatty things you find at street fairs), and guava sauce. While delicious, the overwhelmingly sweet notes make this a dish to be shared.
Lastly, the dessert. I am comfortable stating that the Chocolate Cortazar is one of the best chocolate desserts I have ever had in Manhattan. The multi-layered mousse cake stacks white, bittersweet, and milk chocolate mousses together on top of a thin sliver of dense dark chocolate cake and is offered with a small dollop of mate ice cream and macademia sauce. Soft, silky, and impossibly decadent, this dessert will wow without question.
Perhaps the best thing about Rayuela is the unpretentiously romantic vibe. Without pomp and circumstance, Rayuela sets the mood seductively with delicious interactive food (hello aphrodisiacs…), a litany of creative (and dangerous) cocktails, and a mellow atmosphere. The service is friendly and efficient with plenty of hands on deck and few bobbles (not to mention lovely Spanish accents…). Perfect for a date night or for drinks with friends at the beautiful stone bar, Rayuela stands out from the crowd of Latin American restaurants colonizing Manhattan.