43 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10010
If ever there was ever a stereotypical “bridge and tunnel” moment for a couple heading from the country to the city, this was it. Woefully unprepared to cope with a busy Friday night, we were frantically trying to garner a table for two on our way to the city, sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, and striking out at every turn. The wonders of technology – or in this case the so-so internet browser on my wife’s Blackberry – proved good at tracking down the restaurants we could remember we wanted to try, but was of no help when it came to gaining access. Annisa was booked solid but taking names for their waiting list; WD-50 offered a seat at the bar as a walk-in, but no tables.
“Should we settle for Heartland Brewery?”
“Try googling ‘arroz con pato’ and ‘New York Magazine.’”
The mind can work in strange ways: visions of a sliced duck breast danced through mine at that particular moment. Admittedly, I will drive a long way to try a superior duck dish and, while I could remember “arroz con pato” being featured in just about every New York area publication in one way or another, I couldn’t recall the name of the restaurant.
“Nuela, got it,” said my wife.
A short while later we had a table for two at 8:45.
The first thing you notice entering Nuela (located in the Flatiron section of Manhattan) on a busy Friday night is the D.J. setting up in a decidedly not-intended-for-a-D.J. space adjacent to the bar. Never mind the maitre d’ that could have doubled as Ricardo Montalbán’s little brother, vaguely off-putting as he was while he grasped my wife’s hand with both of his. It was a gesture of over-enthusiastic welcome that was the source of much imitation throughout the weekend. Waiting at the bar 20 minutes past our reservation time was a fitting punishment for our lackadaisical attitude towards procuring a reservation. Once my wife had the good sense to go over and remind the hostess that we were still ready and waiting, we were promptly seated.
Nuela’s stated intention is to produce refined South American cuisine and, to that end, they succeed admirably. The rest of the picture, though, is one that gives off the vibe of a meatpacking district club crossed with what can only be the product of an interior designer run amok, overly fascinated with the color red.
The main dining areas are split up into an upper and lower room, with an ersatz chef’s table and a common dining table crammed into the area between them. The alternating frosted and clear glass panes of glass that separate the Chef Adam Schop’s kitchen from the rest of the space provides a fascinating look into the inner workings of the restaurant, if you’re so inclined.
The restaurant was very crowded and the ear splitting decibel level from our perch in the upper dining room did nothing to quell the clubby vibe of the room. Carrying on a conversation proved to be impossible as we waited for our first course but, somehow the waitress assigned to our table coherently explained the finer points of the menu above the racket.
Good food has a habit of transcending less than favorable situations. Chef Schop and his kitchen staff deserve commendation because the atmospheric atrocities taking place outside his kitchen are well tempered by the food that comes out of it. Our first course of braised oxtail empanadas and smoked brisket arepas were good enough to drown out the D.J. and dull the overwhelming noise of the diners in the upper room. The empanadas toed the line, with plenty of flavor contained in the oxtail filling to stand up to the buttery pastry of the shell. The arepas, topped with brisket and a paste of black bean and mashed plantain were perfectly balanced between sweet and savory despite the dryness of the brisket. Resigned to exchanging knowing glances in lieu of conversation, it was almost enough to make us forget how irritating it was to finally have a night away from the children only to be unable to talk.
The entrées made all of the injustices of the room and crowd – perceived or otherwise – worth the effort. The arroz con pato, a celebration of all things duck, lived up to the considerable hype it has received. A seared duck breast, confit of gizzards and neck and an unctuous lobe of roasted foie grois all comingled with a solitary fried duck egg and sautéed Brussels sprout atop paella served in a cast iron pan. It was valhalla for an admitted duck lover, well worth the price of admission. The duck fest was complemented by their version of a lobster chupe, a very refined version of the traditional South American stew. Normally you might expect the lobster, butter poached, to be the star of the show but the complexity and balance of the chupe sauce stood out, the handiwork of a well trained saucier.
Sated, half deaf and ready to walk off the considerable calories just consumed, my wife posed the question to me as soon as we hit the sidewalk outside: “Would you come back?”
“Probably not,” I said – too many other restaurants to try and not enough time to get to them. However, if you, like me, are a lover of all things duck, I urge you to make the pilgrimage, fight the noise and try the arroz con pato just once. Learn from us though and try a Tuesday night instead of a Friday, your ears will thank you.