Wood fire is a powerful kitchen tool, thrilling in its ability to singe everything it touches. When manipulated properly, glowing embers imbue ingredients with a penetrating smokiness, yielding pronounced exterior char and almost primal, soft flesh. At Colonia Verde, which opened in February on a well-trod stretch of DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, flames render a butterflied langoustine into sculpture. Pry the sweet crustacean from its blackened, contorted shell and dip the halves into cilantro chimichurri that’s mild enough to let the seafood shine. Fire also works its magic on a robust special of salt-baked tenderloin, wrapped in cloth and immolated until the fabric turns to ash and only the browned salt crust remains.
In four short years, Felipe Donnelly and Tamy Rofe have transitioned from a life as dinner party hosts and advertising executives to repeat restaurateurs. They named their first restaurant Comodo, the Spanish word for comfort, as a way to reference the communal aspect that was so integral to their supper club. The successful fundraising campaign that helped them open up shop in Soho may be a fond memory, but the intimate atmosphere, along with Donnelly’s quirky pan-Latin cuisine, have endured. Even new chefs are required to have signature dishes these days, should they ever be goaded into an impromptu street-style cooking competition. And if you’ve visited the happy couple in Manhattan, you’ll spot some familiar faces, like a massive plate of rough-cut fettuccine in a sharp poblano pepper Bolognese sauce. A riff on Caesar salad also makes the cross-borough trip, with sautéed Brussels sprouts in place of romaine, and a gloppy, anchovy-less dressing made with mustard, avocado, and Parmesan cheese. It begs for salt and acid.
Colonia Verde takes its design cues from South American farmhouses, and Fort Greene resident (and veteran designer) Matthew Maddy has devised an appropriately warm, rustic space. There are wooden beams, brick floors, an open kitchen, and an anterior greenhouse room that’s a practical contrast to the cozy vibe up front, where a large copper-topped bar commands attention despite pint-sized stools. Six regular mixed drinks and three dessert cocktails are listed, all of which feature Mexican and South American spirits such as tequila, pisco, and rum.
The drinks are perfect for sipping while grazing on appetizers, which is what I’ll call the list of small dishes in lieu of any proper menu designation, many of which are presented on slate boards. Donnelly often has a nimble way of melding flavors on the plate, as in a trio of Colombian-style arepas, which showcase honey-glazed shrimp that adhere to their cornmeal discs via a schmear of ricotta whipped with leeks. Scotch eggs, those bastions of bar snacks, would be right at home on practically any New American menu from the past five years. But beyond flavorful fennel-pork sausage, the fried orbs boast deviled yolks flavored like esquites, the Mexican street snack of corn kernels mixed with chile powder, lime juice, and mayonnaise. Served as four halves, each piece is topped with the spiced kernels, which tumble off the unsteady ovum when attempting to dip the eggs into a saucer of spicy crema.
Wood fire makes a triumphant return amid the larger plates with a chef’s steak, which alternates between skirt cuts and rib eye, which I sampled, and is also the most expensive entrée-size dish at $32. Large enough to share, it arrives at the table with a steakhouse-quality crust, the meat cooked to temperature (in this case, a luscious medium rare) and served with smoky salsa and caramelized onion mashed sweet potatoes topped with avocado. Occasionally, creativity gets the best of the kitchen. Swapping out duck for beef in a take on the classic Peruvian stir fry, lomo saltado, renders the bird chewy, its gelatinous fat hanging off of each piece. It ultimately falls flat despite a vibrant tomato-based sauce that works its magic on the accompanying potatoes, red peppers, and fideo-riddled mound of rice.
Bogus dessert menu descriptions had me checking my pulse for circulation issues. An appropriately named “Brooklyn Mess” parfait was supposed to have coffee ice cream, but the kitchen switched out the java for a scoop of coconut, in truth a wise match for dulce de leche–drenched mango slices. Tres leches–style carrot cake also led my table astray, promising the nutty depth of peanuts and then delivering none. These omissions didn’t wind up hurting their intended desserts, but it was odd to have it happen more than once. It’s a reminder that despite their breakout success, the team behind Colonia Verde is still pretty green.