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Nuela

Critics' pick
1/4
Caroline Voagen Nelson

Nuela

2/4
Caroline Voagen Nelson

Nuela

3/4
Caroline Voagen Nelson

Nuela

4/4
Caroline Voagen Nelson

Nuela

Gramercy & Flatiron
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Some restaurants seem destined for disaster even before they debut. Nuela, a long-delayed Pan-Latin behemoth, arrived in the Flatiron District this summer with more baggage than a Samsonite sample sale. Its original chef, Douglas Rodriguez, abandoned the project last year, and the glitzy restaurant---splashed floor to ceiling in garish shades of orange and red, like a Latin dance club---highlights a style of cooking that all but died with the '90s. Against these odds, the big surprise is how well the place actually works.

Some restaurants seem destined for disaster even before they debut. Nuela, a long-delayed Pan-Latin behemoth, arrived in the Flatiron District this summer with more baggage than a Samsonite sample sale. Its original chef, Douglas Rodriguez, abandoned the project last year, and the glitzy restaurant---splashed floor to ceiling in garish shades of orange and red, like a Latin dance club---highlights a style of cooking that all but died with the '90s. Against these odds, the big surprise is how well the place actually works.

Rodriguez protg Adam Schop researched his extensive menu on the ground in South America. While there are influences from up and down the Pan-American Highway, the focus is on an equatorial cluster---Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia---with virtually no representation in the high-end food scene in New York.

The restaurant, for better or worse, has a brash party vibe, and Schop makes the best of it by serving up shareable picos (literally something to peck at) and anticuchos (the traditional skewered street food of Peru). They're a fine match for bespoke tropical drinks like fresh grapefruit Hemingway daiquiris. The chef's beef-heart anticucho offers supremely tender organ meat lavishly seasoned with cumin and mild aji panca pepper, while miniature Brazilian salt-cod fritters have a subtle hint of sweet coconut.

Huge entre platters are also well suited to the fiesta spirit. Duck rice, listed on the menu as an entre for two, could quite easily feed double. The dish offers five variations on the theme of duck---the bird's succulent roasted breast, confited leg, seared liver, tender chopped gizzards and fried runny egg---served atop golden rice, beautifully crisp around the edges. Roasted suckling pig, another large-format feast, served with fluffy white rice and flaky scallion pancakes, is Nuela's one can't-miss dish: The remarkably juicy and flavorsome meat is cured in garlic, citrus and thyme, and its crispy skin is basted with sweet annatto-seed oil. More modest dishes for one---like striped bass with white anchovies, chorizo and vinegary escabeche peppers---are just as expertly rendered.

Nuela's showcase ceviche bar, meanwhile, is a destination in its own right, with a separate menu devoted entirely to citrus-cured seafood. Schop's toro ceviche is a nod to the Japanese culture in Lima, featuring ethereal cubes of fat-stippled tuna tossed with silken tosaka seaweed and orange and lime juices. A more offbeat creation tucks raw oysters under translucent slivers of barely seared beef, an inspired homage to the Chino-Latino cuisine of Peru; beef in oyster sauce reimagined in an elegant package.

Service is top-notch---the waitstaff flanking the dining room like Bogot bodyguards---and the stereo volume seems always just right. Desserts, too, are thoughtfully executed---a combination of praline bar, milk espuma and coffee gele is a polished departure from the usual churros and flan. This dessert, like just about everything else at Nuela, defies all reasonable expectations. Who knows, it might even spark a Pan-Latin revival.

Cheat sheet

Drink this: Tropical drinks like the Hemingway daiquiri and pisco sour, or a Cuba Libre riff, made with cola syrup, seltzer, rum and a splash of gin (each $12).

Eat this: Salt-cod fritters, beef-heart anticucho, toro ceviche, duck rice, suckling pig

Sit here: The vast restaurant offers multiple dining rooms. The least appealing seats are up front, looking out onto West 24th Street, while the most festive are at the high tables that surround the ceviche bar.

Conversation piece: Nuela's clubby decor was conceived in part by Venezuelan fashion designer Angel Sanchez, known for celebrity clientele like Salma Hayek and Sandra Bullock.

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Venue name: Nuela
Contact:
Address: 43 W 24th St
New York

Cross street: between Fifth and Sixth Aves
Opening hours: Daily 5–11pm
Price: Average main course: $27. AmEx, MC, V
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