It was early May when The Black Ant (60 Second Avenue, 212-598-0300), a contemporary Mexican restaurant in the East Village, soft-opened its doors to a select few. There was a sturdy doorman dressed in black consulting a clipboard of names, an actual velvet rope, a truncated red carpet, and one of those plywood backdrops pasted with the restaurant’s logo for the well-heeled to pose in front of while a photographer snapped away — this is what a PR machine looks like.
Even when that red carpet is rolled away, the air of exclusivity pervades. The restaurant is run by the team behind Ofrenda NYC in the West Village, which has a similar clubby sheen, and here, that team knighted Mario Hernandez, formerly of La Esquina, as the head chef.
Down a few steps from the street on Second Avenue, the place is a long, low-lit hallway with a bar up front and booths in the back. Black tiles of ant iconography run along the walls, and wood stained a resinous ebony evokes the gallows of a ship. The only light flickers from small candles and the glow of cell-phone screens illuminating diners’ faces.
There are all manner of interesting things on the menu: blood clams that leech their sanguine liquor into a pig’s foot ceviche ($14); guacamole spiked with ant salt ($13); a braised venison salpicon on tostadas made with chia seeds ($13); and crispy grasshoppers stuck to the plate as if they had been distracted by orange chile de agua salsa and had landed there themselves ($14).
The bar is equally intense. There are smoked jalapeños, good mezcals, and carefully calibrated cocktails. The signature may be the Yum Kaax ($12), a cocktail that will make you feel ridiculous when you’re saying its name out loud but gleeful while you’re drinking it. Ingeniously, it is made from the juice pressed from sweet corn kernels mixed with tequila and the lemony herb pitiona. The drink is frothy, pastel yellow, and tastes like a pure distillation of a summer picnic — complete with the black specks of pulverized ants dotted around the rim.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.