Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Oficina Latina: a progressive dinner along the Pan-Am Highway

Paella de Mariscos at Oficina Latina
Oficina Latina  (24 Prince Street, NYC; (646) 381-2555;

Oficina Latina is anything but your typical biker or NASCAR bar, tucked inconspicuously on a more introverted stretch of Prince Street in Nolita.  But just beyond the garage door (which opens to the street in warm weather) sits an unofficial museum to the Pan American Highway during the 1950s, colorfully adorned with racing helmets, old black-and-white photos, mechanic 'trouble lights' dangling from cords coiled around exposed pipes, and a whole gallery's worth of vintage memorabilia evoking the spirit of the elusive highway during its heyday.  By sunset each day, the entire space is rip-roaring with a crowd of fans of a different sort.  These are fanatics of some particularly innovative cocktails, a killer tapas menu, and a versatile casual environment suited for intimate couples and groups alike.                                                                                      

Beyond the bar and communal tables sits is a more intimate dining area near the back
Just as the decor evokes a nostalgia for the spirited raceway, Executive Chef Eric Gaitan's menu reads like the itinerary for a progressive dinner running the full span of highway between Central and South America. Contemporary tapas from the nations along the highway are denoted with abbreviations on the menu,  with culinary roots from Monterrey in Mexico all the way to Buenos Aires.

Begin with a Peruvian ceviche of fresh tilapia with pink grapefruit segments served with crisp yucca chips, ideal for sharing.  Must-trys are the Venezuelan arepas, available with chimichurri short ribs, vegetables with white bean spread, or these salmon arepas--grilled spinach masa pockets stuffed with tender pink Scottish salmon crudo with buttery avocado, tangy pickled tomato skin, and sharp green onions.

The flavors at Oficina Latina are strikingly familiar, just executed to delicious perfection.  The camarones al ajillo are larger than life whole shrimp that arrive on a sprig of rosemary atop a wooden carving board.  The piquant spices and garlic gently glaze the outside of the sweet and succulent shrimp.  And if seafood is up your alley, the calamari is remarkably tender--jazzed up in a surprisingly subtle chile de arbol marinade, and then grilled.

A bartender muddles fresh lime for a caipirihna
But the tapas is by no means the only arena where the use of peppers is prominent.  Co-owner Paolo Votano, a notably charming Italian (who one particular evening roamed the floor in a denim mechanics suit with multiple pocket chains and a distressed ponytail like a tattooed Formula One playboy), has developed a seasonally-evolving cocktail list that loves to tease the balance between sweet, sour, and spicy by combining several fruits and peppers.

Weekday happy hour from 4-7 can be quite lively at the front bar, featuring buy one get one drinks.  But the drinks, even at full price, are some of the best Latin-inspired cocktails around.  Consider a mango peppercorn caipirihna or a prickly-pear-serrano-ginger mojito made with tequila.  Or purists may keep it simple, choosing from over 100 tequilas and mezcals, or over 100 rums, piscos, and cachacas.

After a few of the specialty cocktails and a starter or two, consider some of the larger plates, still excellent for sharing.  Warm, fresh mini tortillas are piled with daily roasted suckling pig, slivers of avocado, and a dollop of creamy garlic-serrano dressing.  These tacos should be award-winning, with crispy caramelized skin coating rosy, juicy, lean shreds of pork.  They are excellent.  Other delicious meats are served Argentine churrasco-style, like chimichurri skirt steak, a rich and crispy coated morcilla Colombian fried blood sausage, to a simple buy juicy, jalapeno-cilantro marinaded slow-roasted chicken.  Be sure to ask for extra tomatillo compote on the side, like a sweet, tangy green tomato marmalade that is fantastic judiciously slathered over any or all of the grilled meats.

For a sweet finale, desserts are drawn from the same pool of inspiration as many of the mixed coktails, with highlights such as a dulce de leche cheesecake with prickly pear and blackberries, or a playful lychee-serrano panna cotta with coconut ice cream and a drizzle of guava sauce.  Or for a slightly more sinful cap to the evening, try the irreverently plated 'Passion & Love' (Votano has it tattooed on his arm), the house signature shot of Venezuelan rum presented with three cut lines of cocoa powder, cinnamon, and brown sugar for dusting the orange wedges.

Whether for a cocktail, snack, a date, or a large gathering of friends, Oficina Latina holds the rare ability to captivate and satisfy almost any mood or palate.  So the next time you find yourself traveling downtown, it's definitely worth a pit stop at the very least.      

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