Saturday, January 10, 2009

For The Love Of Arepas

I was looking for a complete departure from Thursday's day of health, which led me to 1.) attend a matinee of Bride Wars where my friend and I happily consumed one oversized bag of popcorn, one bag of twizzlers, and one Diet Coke (calorie free!) and 2.) brave the cold for a visit to the east village's Yerba Buena, where almost everything is fried.  In a good way.  

What's in a name?  Yerba Buena refers to the plant by the same name, a member of the mint family sometimes found in Latin American cooking.  Literally translated, it means "good herb."  There were no signs of the so-called good herb in my initial cocktail, the Poquito Picante.  That other herb, cilantro, stole the show, along with Tanqueray, jalapeno, cucumber juice, and Cointreau.  It was clean, fresh, and garnished with a dried chili that I was tempted to consume.  I was warned against it.  

For dinner, we shared a number of appetizers and one entree, the rib eye.  In retrospect, I'd probably skip the perfectly fine--and perfectly ordinary--rib eye in favor of more small plates.  First came the picada, a paper cone filled with fried goodies like yucca (a root vegetable), tostones (fried plantain), chorizo, and chicharron (fatty pieces of pork) and served with a spicy salsa.  

Rings of calamari dusted with blue cornmeal were fried and served over a tomato and onion salad.  They were neither chewy nor greasy, a feat in and of itself.  Our pizza cubana contained all of the necessary elements of a Cuban sandwich: sweet pickles, swiss cheese, pulled pork (in this case, suckling pig), and ham.  The pizza's "crust," a crispy wafer-thin bread, did not buckle under the weight of its toppings.  

Arepas were the star of the evening, two barbecued beef short rib sliders on biscuits with a cabbage slaw and pickled jalapenos.  A little less successful were the empanadas, pastry pockets filled with spinach, manchego, and figs and served with a boring vinaigrette.  True, the empanadas were not doughy or dripping with fry oil, signs of a poorly-executed pastry.  They were, however, distinctively indistinctive.  

The rib eye was a rib eye; I wouldn't order it again.  But vegetables made a stronger impression.  Roasted wild mushrooms, called hongos, arrived drenched in a spicy aioli.  How could I possibly decry the marriage of two of my favorite foods, mushrooms and mayonnaise?  I was less moved by the platanos, fried sweet plantains with truffle cream.  They weren't served hot enough, although the flavor ultimately prevailed. 

For dessert we settled on a second round of cocktails--for me, the Jamaica 107: hibiscus tea-infused whiskey, egg white, and lemon juice--as well as the fondue and tres leches cake.  Fondue combined chocolate and dulce de leche in a miniature fondue pot.  Dipping items included fresh strawberries, coconut marshmallows, dense chocolate cakes, churros, and bananas.  The tres leches cake, coconut-flavored and literally soaked in three milks, just tasted soggy.  

But the restaurant, if slightly uneven, is warm, welcoming, and intimate.  If I lived in the evil EVill, I would no doubt make frequent visits, for the arepas alone.   

Yerba Buena
23 Avenue A
New York, NY 10009

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