Isla in the Smog

Nuevo Latino crept up on us with the stealth of a good chile. First, salsa became as ubiquitous as ketchup. Then, Miami's Mango Gang, as foodies call the town's trendier chefs, fired up their Vikings and Vulcans and cuchifrito food lost its lard. Now, mojitos are replacing martinis in many a Gotham eatery and the city is facing south. The recent openings of several Nuevo Latino spots have made Manhattan's Latins the hottest tickets around. None is hotter than Isla. The creation of Aaron Sanchez, who takes food as seriously as his mom, Zarela, does, this zesty new hangout rings in changes while remaining true to its Cubanismo.

Following the new trend of invisible entries, Isla hides its face from the street. Two potted plants mark the entrance. Inside, the sleek '50s look seems more South Beach than West Village. Twinkling votive lights atop each table and glasses filled with floating spotted orchids add tropical notes, as do hanging lamps the color of ripe papayas. Models and wannabes swarm the bar, where they're packed as thick as bees on an overripe cherimoya. The air crackles with hipness as companionable decibels reverberate off ceramic tiles. The reservation-holding elect are ushered to their seats and presented with a menu that features new twists on rice and beans and all of the tastes of the Hispanic tropics.

On a recent visit early one Sunday evening, my friends and I were encouraged by the knowledgeable waitress to share appetizers like smoked chicken croquetas flecked with spicy chorizo ($13) and tostones filled with picadillo ($10). The three empanaditas filled with seasonal ingredients like shredded duck with bits of onion or dried shrimp ($12) also offer taste-twists on traditional finger foods. Even the obligatory mess of mesclun morphs to include marinated red onion and tangerine segments, along with a hint of cilantro in the dressing ($9).

Details

Isla
39 Downing Street, 352-CUBA.
Open Monday to Wednesday 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday to Saturday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Major credit cards.
Limited wheelchair access.

The mains are also worth remembering. A massive cumin-rubbed grilled pork chop ($19) is slit, filled with a tomato, onion, and green bell pepper sofrito, and topped with a bunch of fresh watercress. Alongside, the slightly sweet taste of the pureed tropical tuber called boniato ups the ante on the ever present mash. The pollo borracho ($17) is drunk on citrus-infused spiced rum and perches tipsily atop a combination of smoked black beans and the creamy mashed plantain the Cubans know by an African name, fufu. Camarones en camisa de platano ($24) wraps heads-on jumbo shrimp in a thin, crisp plantain crust to go with garbanzo-studded rice flavored with parsley, thyme, and chives.

Isla goes beyond the usual sweets of the sugar islands in its dessert offerings. Key lime and coconut ice cream sandwiched between lemon and chocolate wafers ($8) were satisfying yet light and made me feel like a kid at the Good Humor truck. The pineapple tarte tatin, its mildly acidic caramelized ripe fruit counterbalancing coconut ice cream and chewy flecks of freshly grated coconut, demonstrated how a few subtle changes can transform a dish.

Nuevo Latino may not be old enough for a quinceñera. But Isla's thoughtful innovations certainly prove it has come of age.

 
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