The Good Life

Patria, New Yok City

| By Gordon Mott | From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

You can almost see the palm trees swaying on the sidewalk outside. Inside New York's Patria, the constant strains of Latin music--everything from salsa to mariachi tunes--echoes across the multilevel restaurant and reinforces the tropical feel.

If there is an air of faded "Miami Vice" here, you can't help but trace it to the slick maître d'Ariel Lacayo. His cool demeanor keeps the crowds, especially from nearby modeling agencies during happy hour, from getting out of control. But don't attribute it to Douglas Rodriguez, the former chef at Miami's Cuban restaurant Yuca, who has transported his unique Latin fusion cuisine to New York City's Park Avenue South.

When Rodriguez first brought his cooking style to New York, he seemed a bit unsure of what his diners wanted. A year-and-a-half later, he has regained his sure touch with Latin spices and exotic combinations that bear little resemblance to any known Latin cooking but couldn't be anything else. For starters, the ceviches (raw-fish cocktails) are outstanding, although the Peruvian style seems a bit more complex and flavorful than the Ecuadoran. Order a simple arepa sampling and a Pan de Bono con Ají, which is a Colombian cheese bread, and dip them into the small bowl of butter in which roasted garlic has been freshly mashed.

The main courses arrive at the table, a carnival of color on the plates, with delectable aromas wafting to the ceiling. The sugarcane tuna (seared tuna steak is speared with a hunk of sugarcane) has become a trademark. The Patria pork is a glitzed-up version of ropa vieja, but in Rodriguez's incarnation the pork is perfectly offset with a purée of boniato, a root vegetable, and a black bean broth with drizzles of jalapeño vinegar. Everything on the menu, no matter how exotic or unusual sounding it may be, is well worth the adventure. While Rodriguez does misstep occasionally when balancing textures and spices, such stumblings are rare, and the gastronomic sensations he is capable of creating are almost impossible to find elsewhere.

Patria's dessert offerings change from time to time, but it's worth asking for the "cigar dessert," even if it's not on the daily menu. It may not be available, but why not at least ask. Rodriguez prepares a chocolate mousse cake in the shape of a cigar, complete with sugar matches. Another excellent dessert is usually tabbed as tres leches, a combination of custards and creams with bananas. And now that Rodriguez has found the right coffee supplier, you'll get an honest rendition of the dark, full-flavored Cuban version if you ask.

Patria's wine list is unusual in that it focuses almost exclusively on Spanish and Latin wines. While some California wines have finally crept onto the list, 75 percent represent Spain, Argentina and Chile. The wines are fairly priced.

Patria does not keep a humidor. But at the bar and late at night in the mezzanine, cigars have been permitted. Moreover, Douglas Rodriguez is a cigar lover. Even if you are asked to refrain from smoking your cigar, ask to see Douglas. He loves talking about ci-gars, and may want to engage in a little "what have you got, here's what I've got" peek at his personal humidor.

The management hopes to find a way to accommodate cigar smokers full-time when the new antismoking laws take effect in New York City. Lacayo says Patria is considering partitioning off an area of the restaurant. However, all Cigar Aficionado readers should be aware that the next few months are going to be tough on every cigar-friendly establishment in the city as the new antismoking laws go into effect.

-- Gordon Mott

250 Park Avenue South
Phone: (212) 777-6211
Fax: (212) 777-0786
Lunch: $30 without wine per person
Dinner: $45 without wine per person

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