Nuela is a restaurant in search of an identity. Is it a flashy Latin lounge or a restaurant with serious culinary intentions? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. One night, we sat next to a group of what looked like Jersey Shore extras who got progressively drunker until one girl got up and shrieked at her tablemates at the top of her lungs: “I’ve got to peeee!” Meanwhile, we were eating food that went from great—a surf clam ceviche with watermelon—to really good—veal-tongue escabeche—to silly—a king-crab-leg dish that would compare unfavorably to the offerings at a Vegas buffet.
The restaurant, which defines itself as having an “urban sabor,” cooks pan–South American, with modern flourishes and a Peruvian bent—the name comes from a mash-up between “nuevo” and “Latino.” The capacious room is done up in fiery tones, with liberal use of sequins and giant red fabric crisscrosses that look like the back of a corset. Nuela was two years in the making, conceived as Douglas Rodriguez’s big return to New York—he of Flatiron’s now-closed Patria, now of Alma de Cuba in Philly, as well as two spots in Miami and one in Scottsdale. But the chef left the project, replaced as chef/owner by his protégé, Adam Schop.
Schop doesn’t have an easy job here, stepping into big shoes at a 200-seat, 3,000-square-foot restaurant. The menu is as enormous as the space, skipping from snacks to empanadas, sandwiches, salads, mains, plates for two, and suckling pig available by the quarter, half, or full. Ceviches make up the heart of the menu though, a category that merits its own menu page and prep bar, where you can sit and watch the fish sliced and diced. Linger with this raw seafood, because the rest of the menu is seriously (and expensively) hit-or-miss.
Each meal starts promisingly, with a basket of arepas and Colombian pandebono, airy cheese rolls, served with whipped mascarpone and honey. Afterward, there are sufficient ceviches to keep you occupied, priced between $10 and $19. The one combining surf clam with a cylinder of lightly grilled watermelon and brunoise of multicolored heirloom tomatoes is particularly refreshing and balanced—the chewy-sweet mauve clam slices appealing against the watermelon’s wet snap. Large dices of mackerel packed into pretty, Lilliputian butter lettuce cups and lightly dressed in a creamy sauce don’t shy away from the fish’s oily, oceanic flavor. A more traditional mix of shrimp, crab, and octopus arrives soaking in a peppery, oniony leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, the tart and savory reserved ceviche marinade often said to be a hangover cure or an aphrodisiac.
The best ceviches heighten the flavor of the seafood, but there are a few that overwhelm it. Fluke dressed in super-sour preserved lemon yogurt with black olives and fish chicharrón (fried fish skin, brilliant) gets lost under the zinginess of everything else on the plate. And raw oysters hidden under cloaks of razor-thin beef tenderloin would have been enjoyable, except one of the oysters smelled strongly of rot.
Down a Devil’s Sweat cocktail—chile-infused pisco mixed with beer—and a few raw-fish concoctions, and you’ll leave reasonably happy, if with a half-empty wallet and stomach. Venture farther at your own peril.
Anticuchos are Peruvian grilled-meat skewers, traditionally made with beef heart. Ours were gristly and tough. On the other hand, a little cast-iron pot of veal-tongue escabeche—tender cubes of the meat pickled in warm vinegar with red onions, carrots, and radishes—is an invigorating surprise, delicious with the corn pancakes that come on the side.
Of the main dishes, the workaday seared scallops with creamed leeks and sweet-corn humitas is perfectly pleasant—though three scallops for $26 is certainly no bargain. But the king-crab leg served with a Peruvian layered potato salad called causa offered one rubber-band-like crab leg alongside the molded salad of potatoes, avocados, and black olives, topped with trout roe. The causa was overseasoned with both salt and lemon, and the fussy plating seemed designed to distract from the plate’s lack of substance, for $28.
You’d be better off spending that money at Aldea, a modern Iberian spot a few blocks south of Nuela. It serves an arroz de pato—a kind of duck paella—for $21 that is so delicious the dish has practically become a cult. Nuela has its own version of duck rice; this one serves two for $60. It comes in a giant paella pan, the rice topped with a soft-cooked duck egg, tomato salsa, confit of thigh and gizzards, seared breast, and foie gras. Its best quality is that the rice stuck to the bottom of the pan is deliciously crunchy-chewy. And, hey, a piece of seared foie gras doesn’t hurt, either. But the thigh confit is desperately oversalted; the breast tastes faintly bitter, as if it were cooked in burned oil.
Then comes the matter of the room, which at first seems kind of fun, with its Miami-cool strivings, but quickly wears on you. The driving unch-unch of lounge music combined with the high ceilings and hard surfaces are too exhausting for a multi-course meal. Compare it to Cienfuegos, for instance, which is just as contrived and overpriced in its own way, but has a clever and beautiful design that makes you love it and want to order just one more drink. Nuela feels generic, reminding me of the dreary time I spent covering dining in Orange County, California. Were it not for the big window looking out onto an old Chelsea industrial building, you could be anywhere at all. Just not anywhere you necessarily want to be.