July 31, 2005
There are three parts to La Esquina, the new taqueria, café, and gothic, candle-strewn subterranean Mexican brasserie owned by a quartet of restaurant power-brokers: Serge Becker (the designer behind spots like Lure, Bowery Bar and Time Café), James Gersten (formerly of Ken Aretsky’s restaurant group, a restaurant consultant, and an owner of Pearson’s barbecue), Derek Saunders (an architect), and nightlife guru Cordell Lochin. Together, these guys have put together three spaces with fiercely cool scene, terrific food, and dynamic allure.
Let’s begin first with the corner taqueria that occupies a triangular building on the island that is Kenmare Street, below Spring Street. The taqeuria reads “The Corner,” and feels run-down, in a warm and well-loved way, like it has been there for decades, run by natives of Puebla in East LA or Baja. Tacos come out in perfect form. Stuffed into steaming corn tortillas you will find gorgeously marinated hunks of pork topped with pickled onions and jalapeños (Conchinita Pibil), a messy pulled chicken (the Tinga) stewed in chipotle and adobo, topped with shredded cabbage and salsa roja, that is seductively satisfying as the taco heats up your hands and the juices drip down your chin, and sweet, flaky skewers of char-grilled fish (the Pescado) topped with a zippy salsa verde.
All tacos are grilled up right before your eyes as you wait in the slim wood-paneled room, equipped with a window-seat counter for people watching. A good plan is to grab an Agua Fresca—fresh watermelon is a nice choice (though not as good as a recent batch that a certain special someone made for me the other night before he cooked me a phenomenal dinner), and take a seat at the counter, as I did one steamy night last week, and take it all in. The people I watched on a recent evening at the taqueria were all quite extraordinary to look at. I felt as though I was watching a casting call for the next Gucci ad. Women the width of pencils and the height of Redwoods, in oversized Aviator sunglasses, were dressed in tank tops and slim jeans at the $275 price point. They lingered out on the benches with boyfriends clad in vintage CLASH t-shirts, and similarly distressed jeans and Aviator shades. Everyone looked like Lenny Kravitz and Giselle Bundchen. (Yes, I was clearly out of place.) There is a very high hip factor at this urban joint. It is lazy, cool, and hot. Think Café Habana, but with tacos, tortas, and agua frescas.
Aside from the magnificent tacos, the larger, full-service café around the corner offers a menu of super fine food in an equally visually inspired setting. The café is airy and sleek, designed with mile high ceilings, lined with raw weathered wood panels, wide old diner booths, and tall shelves filled with vintage books and record albums (remember those?). It was there that I spent a late afternoon with my friend Kathy, discussing work, men (yes, the one who made me that dinner), and an amazing meal we recently had at Vine Street Café on Shelter Island. People, have you been there yet? Honestly, I don’t know what you are waiting for. Call them and go: 631-749-3210. Chef-owners Terry Harwood and Lisa Murphy met at Union Square Café and went on to work for Andre Balazs at Chateau Marmont and Sunset Beach before opening this white-washed bistro where they are cooking up some stellar American fare. I know I have mentioned it before, but really, it’s time to go. It’s the best place to eat out East. (Okay, I am biased. I must tell you, in full disclosure, I am dating the sous chef. But I loved Vine Street even before we were together. Really, trust me it’s good. It’s not just because of him.)
Anyway, Kathy had come out to visit me in the North Fork with her husband Ronnie and we were recounting our meal at Vine Street—specifically the mind-blowing steaks—when we were served our first courses—a bowl of cold soup and a ceviche. And in an instant, the conversation stopped. Their cold and creamy green tomato and avocado soup was picture perfect, served in a shallow terra cotta cazuela, topped with shaved radishes and bits of avocado and pineapple. It was quite possibly my most intense cold soup experience. I needed a moment after each spoonful. After this experience, I definitely feel like cold soups are totally underrated. This smooth as silk soup was lit up with bright flavors from the tart green tomatoes and a proper dose of lime juice, and balanced by the richness of the creamy avocado. The ceviche was also a winner—juicy shrimp, bursting with sweetness in every bite, steeped in a charred tomato, red onion, chile and lime bath, layered with fresh slices of avocado. After the soup and ceviche, we got back to our conversation and ordered a round of tacos (the tinga, a pescado, and one stuffed with fabulous carnitas this time), and polished those off in no time before digging into a giant slice of rum-soaked bread pudding covered in sliced figs, and a bowl of fresh and chunky just made watermelon and coconut sorbets for dessert.
After lunch, James showed us downstairs, through the kitchen, to the cloistered underground dinning room—a dark, candelabra-lit taverna that feels something like an old-world ball room in a Gothic Mexican castle—a sweeping bar, long sturdy hard wood tables, button-tufted leather banquettes, cozy lounge areas with wrought iron and carved wood accents. It feels haunting and sexy—inviting and slightly dangerous. I loved the look of it.
More on the dinning room to come, but until then, do make a point of throwing on your most chic distressed vintage duds, a pair of aviators (or a straw cowboy hat), and bring an appetite. There are tacos to be eaten, soups to be slurped, ceviches to be devoured, and models to be seen.
La Esquina is located at 106 Kenmare Street, 646-613-7100.