Rayuela

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By Katherine Faw Morris

Despite the success of sleek eateries like Stanton Social and Thor, somehow it’s still surprising to see a well-scrubbed joint like Rayuela pop up on a dingy Lower East Side block. America is about progress, not history, however, and Rayuela, with its “Freestyle Latino” cuisine, seems to have merged right onto the gentrification fast track, taking its blind curves like a confident drunk driver.

Rayuela is named for both the Spanish word for “hopscotch” and an experimental novel by Argentine author Julio Cort����zar. The novel is written in collage form, encouraging readers to skip between its 155 chapters, the last 99 of which are titled “expendable.” The restaurant attempts to meld this hopscotch feel into its design: Two levels of gridded windowpanes frame mix-and-match banquettes in shades of olive green. But what emerges isn’t exactly playful. Hopscotch rocks are polished of their sharp edges and housed in wire cages under the bar and along the bathroom walls. The only color brighter than an earthy blue is the occasional canary yellow sack dress that sprouts up among the post-Sex and the City girls huddled ten deep around little cups of ceviche.

The upstairs dining area is brighter, with an outdoor terrace and sheer white curtains that wrap around every booth, but the feel is less naughty schoolgirl, unfortunately, and more uber-hygenic urban-suburban lacrosse mom. Nobody’s smoking in the bathroom here, and you can leave your knee socks and temporary tattoos at home. Sorry.

The food is more thematically successful in channeling Cort����zar’s excessively partitioned novel and in delivering on Chef M����ximo Tejada’s Estilo Libre Latino (Freestyle Latino). The menu makes a panoramic sweep of Latin American fare with lots of that fusion-happy nuevo nuevo. A simple appetizer of Puerto Rican bolas��������a mash of green plantains, bacon, and onions��������is fried into croquettes and served with twice-cooked pork fritters and a veal sauce, stewed peppers, and jalapenos. Of course, over-accessorization can work (see also Hip Hop), and a crispy oyster starter of fried Blue Points on the half shell, nestled over a poblano aioli and topped with cilantro, onion, and peppers certainly does. However, Tejada is at his best when keeping it real. A skate empanada paired with avocado tomatillo sauce is spicy, scrumptious, and most thankfully, simple.

Rayuela specializes in ceviches, served in elaborate combinations from the upper level��������s stone ceviche raw bar. The “Lobster Revolution” is the best of the bunch, a hunk of fresh lobster meat marinated in coconut-lemongrass-lemon leaf-sage-ginger water and garnished with rum-basted grilled pineapple and caviar from Uruguay. Somehow a sweet, subtly tangy flavor finds it way to the surface of the ingredient overload. However, a tuna and calamari concoction gets lost in a bland sea of watermelon, star anise, and tarragon.

In entr����e land, “Pato Con Arepa” is a fowl-lover’s dream of sliced duck breast marinated in sugarcane and folded over a mound of cranberry, grenadine, cinnamon, and clove infused duck leg confit. The filet mignon, grilled in the Argentine churrasco mode with chimichurri sauce, is also able to vault over its overwrought presentation. Its base of roasted potatoes, mushrooms, and an onion-y melted cheese is a delicious and non-fussy accompaniment. For a sweet finish, the chocolate layer cake has one too many folds of ganache, meringue, mousse, and so on. But the coconut tembleque��������a sturdy corn cake crowned with jellied coconut custard��������is so light and unencumbered, it might have the girl-heavy crowd considering ditching their sack dress uniform for something a little more form-fitting, like, well, spandex.

Cocktails, though, are where I like a little extra-ness, and on this front, Rayuela really shines. Mixologist Junior Merino, formerly of the Modern, brings the addiction. His “Pina Partida,” incorporates lemon, cucumber, and pineapple, leaving me blissfully unaware that the devil, a.k.a tequila, is most definitely involved. A cherry sherry flavored with flamed orange zest and pomegranate syrup is also too much fun in a good way, but an after-dinner shot of tapioca balls under tequila-infused avocado foam may actually take the belt as the new crack.

It’s true that Rayuela is a little confused, with its everything-and-the-sweet-breads menu and fragmented interior. But it’s also pretty indicative of the hyper-evolving nature of its hood. I’d take one of its sugar high cocktails over an unwashed junkie anytime.

165 Allen St. (Stanton and Rivington Sts.) 212-253-8840 Lower East Side