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Rayuela

Address: 165 Allen St., btwn. Rivington & Stanton Sts.
Phone: 212.253.8840
Cuisine: “Freestyle” Latin American & Spanish
Scene: Island chic
Hours: Dinner, Sun-Thu, 5:30-11pm, Fri & Sat, 5:30-12pm; Brunch, Fri & Sat, 10am-5pm.
First Bite Impressions: An admirable work in progress with a truly inspired cocktail menu
Don’t Miss Dish: Ecuadorian seafood stew
Price
: Appetizers, $13; Entrees, $25.
Reservations: Reservations accepted.

Chef-owner Maximo Tejada (Patria & Lucy) & restaurateur Hector Sanz couldn’t have chosen a more favorable season to introduce New Yorkers to their sexy, tropical oasis with a freestyle menu that liberally wanders through Latin America & Spain.  While Allen Street’s only just beginning to reap the benefits of a Lower East Side dining boom, this Latino-bent newcomer has undoubtedly made aesthetic strides on this otherwise bleak street.  Rayuela’s airy, two-story space is furbished with natural wood tables, exposed brick walls, breezy linen curtains, stone floors & earthy green banquettes.

You aught make a pitstop at the generous, slate-topped bar for Rayuela’s main attraction: Junior Merino’s vibrant cocktail menu.  An impressive selection of fresh-squeezed concoctions, stylized classics and made-to-order red, white & rose sangria, Merino takes creative liberties with exotic ingredients and liquors of the pisco and tequila sorts.  Open only two weeks and neighborhood locals had already claimed bar stool territory and made a commendable dent in the cocktail list.  Me, I was suddenly whisked away from the madness of the city to the tropics, lounging poolside as I sipped on a luxurious, lemongrass-infused watermelon juice muddled with fresh mint and limes.  While perhaps more appealing to the eye than the tongue,
“coming up roses” appears a perfectly romantic, rose petal-tinged tall glass of champagne,
rose water, lime juice and Bacardi Razz.  Instead, the men seemed to gravitate toward the pisco
sour, served straight up, in a stylized martini glass with a bright splash of bitters.

Come time for dinner, the hostess guided us passed an olive
tree (imported from California) that stretched its limbs up to the
second floor dining room, as if we were happily ascending into an urban tree house.
There, we were left to explore an ambitious and all too complicated menu that ambles through the Carribbean, Latin America, South America and even into Spain.  Our well-intended, but overeager waiter, debriefed us on Rayuela’s (hopscotch in Spanish) freestyle philosophy, encouraging guests to “skip” around an overwhelming list of ceviches, empanadas and embrace Tejada’s contemporary interpretations: ham-wrapped scallops in a kiwi citrus sauce, a duck breast with a foie gras-topped arepa and a side of truffle-scented white asparagus.

The tropical juices aren’t bound to the downstairs cocktail lounge, but also spill into the savory side of things, especially the ceviches.  Tejada splashes tuna &
calamari with watermelon juice and marinates corvino (a
whitefish similar to sea bass) in a blood orange & carica bath.  Unfortunately, the ones I sampled weren’t served by the weightiness of the sugar.  The corvina ceviche might as well been served in a
shotglass, or at least with a spoon, an overly sweet,
citrus soup that swallowed any traces of flavor the corvina might’ve once claimed.  Even a hefty dose of cilantro & red onion couldn’t balance
out the flavors.  The red snapper was a more successful pursuit: buttery dominoes of snapper, blissfully soaking in a sesame-dotted soy sauce, capped off with a crunchy julienne of peppers, cucumbers & avocado.  But truth be told, the snapper was more grounded in Asian tradition than Nuevo Latino.  This was curiously also the case with the hamachi ceviche, tasty, and the “tuna rellena” – which wasn’t.  It was like searching for lost treasure as I dug through a bland & clumpy mound of avocado in search of a few scarce strands of crab and shrimp.

Rayuela’s kitchen performs at its best when Tejada sticks closer to home.  An Ecuadorian seafood stew was generously stocked with superiorly moist scallops, briny clams, mussels and octopus, all wading in an aromatic coconut and yellow chile-laced broth that snuck a subtle heat.  Beyond supple strips of sepia were elevated by a garlicky white wine sauce and a faintly sweet, manchego was elevated by a rich pocket of wild mushrooms.  But the most delightful arrival to the table was the bread basket.  Warm doughy nibbles of Colombian “pan de bono” – made from yucca flour & a hint of queso – were perfectly paired with a creamy blend of butter, honey & roasted garlic.  Indulge at your own risk.

Alas, when you attempt to cover this
much territory, it’s bound to result in inconsistencies and a few misteps.  While Rayuela would benefit from paring down its menu, this Lower East Sider is worth a trip if not for the cocktails alone.

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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