Chicago perfects Nuevo Latino cuisine; can Paladar, Cleveland keep up?

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Last week’s trip to Chi-town was a chance to try out some trendy Nuevo Latino eats, first at Mark Mendez’s colorful Carnivale, perched above I-90 near the Loop, and then at De La Costa, celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez’s newest spot, located just outside the Navy Pier. What helped get us excited about the chance to chow down on ceviche, empanadas, fresh fish, and pork in all its glorious permutations was the fact that local toque, Matt Mytro, did some field work in both restaurants’ kitchens in preparation for launching Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar last month, in Woodmere. When personal biz took us to the Windy City, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to check out how the “other guys” do it, as a prelude to dining at Paladar; look for a review of that spot to run in the Scene later this fall. With ingredients like plantains, boniatos, coconut, beans, and of course, chiles, culled from practically every Spanish-speaking country in the Western hemisphere, combined with classic cooking techniques, and tweaked with a few North American twists, Nuevo Latino cuisine capitalizes on diners growing interest in Latin American culture, as well as the rising Hispanic population. Don’t come ‘round looking for tacos and burritos, though; this is sophisticated “world cuisine,” with enough diversity that every chef can recast it in his or her own personal style. At the almost one-year-old De La Costa, that means a focus on “coastal” cuisine: lots of fish and seafood, rounded out with the requisite prime beef, lamb chops, and organic chicken. The lengthy menu begins with ten types of ceviche (raw fish or seafood “cooked” in citrus juices), moves on to sophisticated starters (duck confit, charred octopus, and braised chicken empanadas, among them), pauses for soups and salads (including a fantastic combo of cool watermelon and sugar-sweet baby beets, topped with sheer slices of serrano ham), crescendos with dishes like lobster xim-xim, adobo-rubbed tuna, and organic salmon with creamy quinoa, and winds up with such sweeties as roasted plum ice cream, churros, and milk chocolate flan. Concepts are refined, flavors are often daring, and presentation is artful. Entrée prices run from $23 to $36; without booze, tax, or tip, dinner for two – shared ceviche, shared salad, two entrees, and a shared dessert – set us back about $115. At two-year-old Carnivale – a larger, less intimate, but still eye-popping space -- the lineup isn’t too different, although the scales tip somewhat more in favor of beef and pork. Certain dishes, particularly the shredded rum-glazed pork shoulder, served with fried plantains and lush beans and rice, seem to channel a more earthy, rustic sensibility than we found at De La Costa. The clientele tended to be a little younger, too. And prices seemed a little more wallet-friendly. Here, our dinner for two – shared ceviche, guacamole, two entrees, and a shared dessert – was only around $95. Overall, while we can’t say the food at either spot floored us, they were both worth a visit, especially for their sexy lounges serving lots of imaginative cocktails (we loved Carnivale’s well-made mojitos; De La Costa’s, in contrast, were like sipping sugar water); good service; high-energy vibes; and stunning design and décor. De La Costa, especially, blew us away with what we can only describe as its “medieval Spanish theater” décor, including an entry lined with monstrous masks, and, in the dining room, ten tableaux of menacing marionettes, making the space feel deliciously dark and mysterious. Of course, Paladar will offer its own unique take on the Nuevo Latino phenomenon. We can’t wait to see how it compares. – Elaine T. Cicora

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