There are certain things you expect from a wine bar in the East Village. You expect the twee chandelier, the artfully distressed copper wall, and the small plates on the menu, but you probably don’t expect the owner to flop a fake severed leg onto the bar, ask if you’ve ever had human ceviche, and guffaw, “Tastes like toro!” You might expect the menu to include buzzwords like “house-cured” or “home-smoked,” but you might not expect the bespectacled cook to haul out his homemade gravity bong, pack a load of Sichuan peppercorns in the bowl, and truly home-smoke the oysters.
That’s the improbable state of things at Desnuda, a Latin-American wine bar and cevicheria that looks like a typical upscale wine bar, but feels like a night in your stoner friend’s basement—a friend who just happens to have a cooler full of fish, a rack of nice wine, and a head full of good ideas.
Peter Gevrekis, the co-owner, runs the place with boisterous ease, as if he were behind the counter at a corner pizza joint. This casual manner translated to an upscale establishment is incredibly refreshing, and the fact that he’s adept at recommending wine and food pairings doesn’t hurt. The executive chef, Christian Zammas, putters around behind the bar (there’s no kitchen) armed with a sushi-bar-style cooler of fish, a cutting board, a bunch of spices, a blowtorch, the bong, and one infrequently used burner.
The duo calls the ceviche creations “new world ceviche,” which seems to mean that Zammas does whatever he feels like. There’s a wine list, but no printed food menu, so Gevrekis will rattle off the list of options in rapid-fire detail so that all you can discern is something like “scallop-kaffir-lime-coconut-salmon-roe-rocoto-garlic.” It’s better just to say what fish you particularly like and let Zammas come up with a few dishes. About three ceviches per couple are sufficient for a light dinner.
As soon as you sit down, someone will kickstart the small popcorn popper, after which you get a cone of salty popcorn spritzed with truffle oil. It’s fitting because popcorn is often served with ceviche, and it gives you something to munch on while you wait. Since Zammas does much of the preparation to order, you may have to sit tight for slightly longer than usual. (It’s not the place to go when you’re completely starving.)
One night, our sequence went like this: First, a delicious salmon-and-scallop tiradito (which is like ceviche’s delicate cousin: cut thin, like sashimi or crudo) garnished with crushed corn nuts and flavored with smoked paprika, kaffir-lime zest, and coconut milk. Then, a garnet tuna ceviche emerged, exuberantly spiced with rocoto chilies and topped with pineapple and shreds of coconut. Next, a beautifully orange, briny dish of Scottish salmon with aji amarillo chile, red bell peppers, and lime, topped with salty salmon roe. Finally, and best of all, Spanish mackerel ceviche—a red heap of the oily fish dressed with a pungent mix of shallots, coconut, lime, and a whole lot of smoked paprika. Although it sounded like too many flavors vying for attention, it actually tasted wonderfully balanced—mackerel is assertive enough to play nicely with strong flavors. You could almost imagine that ceviche as a deli spread, piled high on a bagel.
I was drinking a fragrant Uruguayan Chardonnay-Gewürztraminer blend ($9/glass) and my friend had a Chilean Carmenère ($10/glass), but when the mackerel arrived, Gevrekis sloshed out a generous taste of Uruguayan Tannat to go with the dish, and the combination was perfect—rendering both the food and the wine silky-smooth.
As long as you’re hungry, Zammas will keep on tossing things together. In between all the fish, he plunked down a little plate of sweet potatoes with chile mayo and, later, a dish of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms in a coconut red-curry sauce. He might also light a sprig of rosemary on fire so that you breathe in rosemary smoke while you eat nuggets of octopus. He is likely to pour Sprite over a salmon ceviche that’s seasoned with cinnamon. He seems obsessed with chilies—your ceviche might be jolted with French piment d’espelette or Peruvian aji amarillo.
The improvisation is half the fun. One night, Zammas had some lamb around for his own dinner and decided to sear it for a “lamb ceviche” for us, seasoning it with lime juice and a generous smear of mascarpone. Another night, he produced a brûléed scallop dessert—slices of the bivalve crusted with melted sugar. Sometimes the inventions are genius and sometimes they’re not, but they’re always entertaining.
Order the smoked oysters, and out comes the makeshift gravity bong, the body made out of half a soda bottle, the bowl on top bought from a head shop down the street. The unsuspecting oysters sit in small dishes, and, using the smoldering peppercorns in the bowl, Zammas fills three small glass orbs with Sichuan peppercorn smoke. He quickly clinks them down on top of the oysters. Now, the oysters look like they’re living in little biodomes filled with smoke. Zammas instructs us to pick the bowl up, suck in the Sichuan peppercorn smoke, and then down the oyster. It was definitely the tastiest bit of smoke I’ve ever inhaled, and although it might not have been the very best oyster I’ve ever slurped, it was definitely the most interesting.