Buena Ideya


Christmas was over, Easter was far away, I needed a break, but the calendar was too crunched for a weekend getaway. I’d just about despaired when Ideya materialized like a hibiscus in a puddle of slush. A neon-rimmed cooler that could have been imported from a neighborhood bodega catches your eye, followed by a small altar where Yemanya and the Caridad de Cobre bless the house. A mural morphs from market to beach to carnival. The simple place seems transplanted from Ipanema or Rio Piedras—a place to stop and eat while greeting friends and sipping rum. Whitewashed brick walls, oscillating fans, and a guayabera-clad wait staff who greet you with “Buena” almost make for a substitute vacation. There’s liquid warmth as well. The bar offers a drinker’s tour of the rum beverages of the Hispanic world. Select a daiquiri worthy of Hemingway’s Floridita, or a mojito, which adds a sprig of mint to lime juice and white rum. Brazil’s habit-forming caipirinha, made as it should be with Pitu cachaça, is also available, as are appropriate wines and beers from Panama to Guatemala, including Bacardi’s retake on Cuba’s classic Hatuey. Sit on the plasticized banquettes, listen to the salsa and traditional rumba, and try not to scarf down the long slices of fried plantain that arrive along with a seductive salsa of mango, tomato, and green pepper. The menu is simple: eight appetizers and nine mains plus a few nightly specials.

On the first visit, my friend and I began with the bacalaitos ($7) and the manchego arepas ($7). The codfish fritters were a bit too hard but delicious served with sweated onions and a sauce peppered with the bite of papaya seeds, the arepas properly cheesy, dotted with corn kernels, and topped with a mound of pickled mushrooms. There was nothing drunken about the snapper “borrachado” ($20), two tender meaty pieces served atop a puree of potatolike malanga in a puddle of fish broth with a hint of coconut. The accompanying slaw of chayote and slightly sweet cherimoya punctuated the subtle flavors like an agogo beneath a Macumba hymn. The lobina de chile ($20), grilled sea bass topped with cubes of a cilantro-infused papaya-and-tomato salsa that was served with roasted potatoes and swirls of a delightfully smoky red pepper paste.

Portions were so hearty that on a return trip two appetizers and a shared main sufficed, especially because the main was cerdo asado ($19), three slabs of cumin-scented roasted pork loin. The roasted boniato were way overcooked, so the swine had only the savory topping of red peppers and red onions and the stuffing of sweated sweet onions for additional flavor. Brightly flavored tipico snacks inaugurated the feast. Empanadas de pato ($9), turnovers filled with chunks of duck and cubes of yucca and carrot drizzled with a spicy chile-and-sour-orange sauce, were so generously executed it seemed a shame to grouse that they could have been flakier and that the duck would have been better pulled than cubed. Awed silence greeted the camarones grandes asados a la parilla ($8), three huge perfectly grilled prawns on a mound of mesculun, with dabs of cilantro pesto for dipping and a vinaigrette punctuated with tiny bits of mango topping the whole. I didn’t have my full tan before my coconut ice melted. But my heart was warmed.