I’m all for celebrating great new restaurants, but it seems like diners at 809 Sangria Bar & Grill—located on a gritty block dominated by Chinese takeout and corner bodegas—have already beaten me to the punch. The eatery is party central and deservedly so; this is an excellent addition to the Nuevo Latino scene.
The music is seriously loud, though you can go to the narrow downstairs dining area for quieter conversation. Travel up the hidden backlit stairs, however and the vibe is more like a speakeasy. Locals dressed to the nines greet each other, often in Spanish. Bigshots can migrate to a VIP area, which is basically a bunch of tables separated by a white curtain.
As the name suggests, this is also sangria heaven, and you’d be silly to order any beverage other than the half-dozen varieties on the menu; most pack a sweet, alcoholic punch. “The Heights” mixes rosé wine with rum, schnapps, vodka and Courvoisier, while “the Caribena” blends merlot and Midori. These aren’t gratuitous combinations of whatever’s on the shelf; I was genuinely refreshed by a mix of Malibu rum, mango and peaches, a drink that replicated the sweetness and vanilla-meets-bubble-gum aftertaste of a favorite Latin American soda, champagne cola.
Another part of the restaurant’s name derives from the area code in the Dominican Republic, owner Cirilo Moronta’s home turf, though the menu borrows from all of the Caribbean. Food fans may recognize the name of consulting chef Ricardo Cardona: He helped create the menu at Jimmy’s Bronx Café and then wowed critics at the now-defunct Republi’K and at the critically adored Hoboken spot Lua.
All this experience has paid off: His reinterpretation of classic dishes at 809 raises the bar for Latino cuisine without getting too esoteric, experimental or convoluted. Aided by chef de cuisine Jorge Adriazola, Cordona makes the humble empanada sing from the inside out: He marinates the pork filling in peppers, onions and garlic, and stews the chicken stuffing in its own juices, which keeps each bite moist. Arepas, cornmeal cakes, were topped with a chopped pork that had the tangy sweetness of Southern barbecue. Crab-cake balls were less impressive; Cordona knows his way around a fryer, but these were oily.
Every other seafood dish I tried was impressive: A whole shelled lobster, roasted and stuffed with a red frutti di mer sauce, came in a dramatically tilted bowl. The outstanding fried red-snapper fillet emerged with a circular pool at the center of its body, filled with a shrimp risotto in a tomato-and-coconut sauce and lightly dusted with bread crumbs.
Cordona’s mixed-grill selections, however, were a mixed bag. The cuts are beautiful, but the filet mignon I sampled was charred in a way that made the beef taste burnt and salty.
Desserts, like a firm bread pudding with a bloated raisin in every bite, added some much-needed sweetness to the otherwise salty meal; the ethereal trio of rich flans—vanilla, coconut and coffee—cleverly combines classic flavors from the Caribbean.
By Manhattan standards, 809 Sangria represents a fantastic bargain. For Dyckman Street regulars, however, it may be a splurge—the snapper, for example, costs $24. Still, the place was packed on our visits. “Somebody finally got it right,” a new regular commented from the next table. I nodded in agreement and sampled another sangria.