June 22, 2007 | BITE: My Journal
Rayuela: Duplex Labyrinth

An Olive tree is rooted in Rayuela's duplex on Allen Street.          Photo: Steven Richter
          An olive tree is rooted in Rayuela's duplex on Allen Street.  Photo: Steven Richter

    Almost overnight, or so it seems, Lower East Side quaintness and dinge is being gobbled up by real estate. Even Allen Street has its brand new soaring towers. And just in time: Rayuela, named for a novel by Julio Cortazar (it means hopscotch). With its sophistication and ambition, its $12 cocktails and $30 duck, Rayuela (say Ray-Way-La) is primed to seduce the neighborhood’s brave new condo settlers.
      A live olive tree stretches its branches from the lounge into the upper reaches toward a small skylight.  Tables are carved from tree trunks, and the bar, as well as sinks in a unisex rest room below, sit on a few tons of rocks shipped from Peru. Our close cropped server moves, unsmiling, like an Amazon Goddess, but she can’t seem to get the order straight in three rewrites and it’s an hour already and we’ve yet to see a sliver of hamachi or a curl of lettuce.

    We get to snigger at the menu jabberwocky -- plaintain ships, indeed. Baked snaper. And admire the clever little light bulbs wrapped in parchment in shelves on the wall beside us.  A manager apologizes, but hasn’t the grace to offer drinks or even an empanada as our plaints build to growls. Eventually, marvelous warm cheese rolls arrive -- two for our table of five.
    Too bad.  Because the high octane seviches emerging from chef-partner Maximo Tejada’s kitchen are remarkable: Red snapper “cooked” in a ginger soy citrus with a rainbow of julienned peppers, cucumber, avocado and jalapeno.  “The seven powers of the sea,” a virtual aquarium of sea critters in a fragrant tomatillo sauce.  Hake aggressively laced with sea urchin in grapefruit citrus and torrid mustard oil, a love it or hate it dish at our table. “Lobster Revolution” links pineapple, jalapeno and young coconut water infused with lemongrass and ginger under a sprinkle of caviar from Uruguay.

    “I am one of Doug Rodriguez’ babies,” Tejada tells me later on the phone, speaking of his days in the kitchens at Patria, Chicama and OLA.  “We all wanted to be chefs. No one wanted to be just a cook.  Every line cook at Patria is a chef now. We used to come in early and fight over who would do the evening special.”

    That Latino academy did well for Tejada.  His Ecuadorian seafood stew (listed under “soups”) is a lush gathering of carefully poached seafood in a fiery and sensuous coconut broth. The Colombian rolls, a blend of cheese and yucca flour -- a touch I remember from Patria’s glory days -- are made fresh every half hour, he tells me, dashed to learn of our meager ration.

It's not an authentic paella but Rayuela's Valencia-inspired rice is really good.        Photo: Steven Richter

    I barely recognize sweetbreads drowned in a sweet glaze on salad greens and potato rounds with slivers of bacon, but that’s the evening’s one flub. Otherwise the food is impressive. An elegant tuna rellano.  Shrimp and chorizo in a spicy tomato sauce to scoop up with petals of fried plantain.  Breast of duck with foie gras on a corn pancake.  Pan seared tuna beside a tower of saffron-tinged potatoes. Even the green Valencia seafood rice is pleasant, though it lacks the crustiness of a true paella. 
     I wonder if I should complain about how small my apple crumble timbale is -- given that desserts are just $7. But I really like the lime ice cream on spiced cake coated with vanilla ice cream and meringue, toasted quickly in the oven surrounded by a puddle of lemon curd -- a baked Alaska that landed in the wrong latitude.

    There are 180 seats to fill here. Co-owner Hector Senz needs only to get his serving crew drilled into shape to match the kitchen, with charm equal to the bartender’s tonight. Then, if the Lower East Side’s newest immigrants can hopscotch a mortgage and dinner too, Rayuela will be a welcoming tree-house ready to indulge.

                165 Allen Street at Stanton. 212 253 8840



        Angels Dancing on the Head of a Pin

                                                   Photo: Dan Wynn
    Critics who advertise their arrival by reserving in their own name…critics who do not pay for dinner...Is there anyone who does not find this as shocking and unprofessional as I do? True, it isn’t often I am seated more than a few minutes in a restaurant when someone does not recognize me…although I get to be anonymous more often these days with absentee owners and absentee chefs.
    No, I do not wear wigs. They pinch and can give one a headache. I did buy a sexy Ann Margret redhead number many years ago and wore it once -- I looked just like me with red hair.  But I do make reservations in dozens of different names with various telephone numbers.  I have credit cards in an assortment of names. And I do not wear my signature hats in restaurants.  I wear the hat for photographs and television, when I think I may be photographed at an event, or for fun when I’m on a panel or doing a reading.

     I love hats. I’ve loved hats forever. So friendly on bad hair days. But when I appeared with a black cowboy hat pulled low over my nose on the back cover of my book, Bite: a New York Restaurant Strategy, in l972…my hat wearing days in restaurants were finished.  (I do show up in a hat now and then for a photo session at my habitual lunch hangout, Jean Georges, where I haven’t been unrecognized for years.)

    But there are countless other moral dilemmas.  Like how cruel is too cruel?  A few friends urged me to be really mean in my critiques now that I’m squaring off against many on-line meanies.  I do have space, for the first time, to revisit a place I loved and report that they’ve raised prices yet again, or snipped an ounce or three from a portion, or haven’t yet trained the staff to be gracious and apologetic, to accommodate a customer when something unforeseen goes wrong.

     I went to a small mom and pop French bistro on an odd street of an offbeat neighborhood because two citizen restaurant critics on some web site found it “just amazing,” “nothing short of spectacular.”   I won’t take that level of blogging review seriously again.  I wasted three hours and over $200 to discover a truly charming spot with an adorable logo and a cute gamine host which had a singularly ungifted cook at the range.  I decided not to write about the place.

     Why not?  Doesn’t the critic owe it to her readers to save them from wasting time and money? I asked myself how many food-lovers would be racing downtown to this virtually unsung spot. It’s not that learned critics elsewhere are touting it and I could set eager eaters right. I have never thought it worth swatting a fly with a tank.  A modest out-of-the-way spot getting no press at all will either find an audience or disappear.


    And then there are the cleaning bills. A few weeks ago a pal toppled her glass of red wine and it splashed on my jacket, my blouse, my skirt, my shoes, my stockings and my pashmina. It wasn’t totally her fault. She’d set her glass on a sloping edge of the table.  Our waiter at Stanton Social swooped in with a paper form for me to fill out for my cleaner instructing him to forward the bill to the restaurant. 

    A fabulous cleaner has recently come into my life.  Apthorp Cleaners does miracles.  Red wine on a banana wool jacket is child’s play for the genies of Apthorp.  It’s not the most expensive cleaner I’ve ever heard of…but it’s the most expensive I’ve ever been forced to rely on in this era when many cleaners haven’t a clue how to remove a spot or press a lapel.  My skinflint side wanted desperately to send the bill to Stanton Social.  But I believe a restaurant critic should never ask a restaurant for money.  Not even for charity.

    For twenty five years Citymeals-on-Wheels has depended on the extraordinary generosity of chefs and restaurateurs in many of its fund-raising efforts to bring meals to the homebound elderly. James Beard and I co-founded Citymeals.  I have been board chair for all its life, but the letters seeking restaurant participation are never signed by me. Our annual Corporate Dineout raises more money every year and depends on the exceptional hospitality of New York restaurants.  I have no idea who says yes and who says no.  I don’t want to know.

    For the same reason I will not be sending a cleaning bill to Monkey Bar where a waiter at the first friends and family tasting slipped and spilled a glass of icy white wine all over me.  I screamed. I was in shock for a second or two.  It was cold.  I was soaked.  I thought about going home to change, but sopped up what I could with paper towels in the ladies room. I finally warmed up by dessert time.

    Which brings me to another moral dilemma.  Friends and family tastings. With expense budgets tight and tightening, in some cases, non-existent, it might seem a sensible solution for a restaurant critic to swan in on a friends and family tasting where the house is giving waiters and kitchen a chance to exercise their new muscles. No one gets a check. Everyone is asked to write a critique.  Seems like a genius way to cover a new restaurant.  Mea culpa.  I have several times done a first tasting column based on a friends and family tasting.  Within my usual sometimes inscrutable moral rigidity, I refuse to fill out the questionnaire or write a critique or answer a question on grounds that a critic should not be a restaurant consultant. Is this getting tricky? I was always a dancer.  Am I dancing now on the head of that pin?

    I feel more comfortable writing about the early experience when the tasting is full of promise.  I would rather not try to predict the future when the kitchen and service are still half-baked.  Is anyone else feeling uneasy about the rush to judgment?

    Let me know what you think about these moral dilemmas.  Is anonymity essential for a restaurant critic? Is there any point of reserving in another name if you’re likely to be recognized anyway?  What do you think of a critic who doesn’t expect a bill, freeloads and brings his friends? What if she quietly accepts extra desserts and doesn’t insist they be added to the check?  How about calling in your own name when you’re not working but just want a table in the restaurant you helped heat up?  

    Am I being silly not to let a restaurateur pay for my cleaning bill?  Email me.






Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers