First Posted: 8/23/2009 9:03:43 PM | Last Updated: 8/23/2009 9:03:43 PM
Agua Dulce brings a pan-Latin menu to the mix on Ninth Avenue, evoking the Latin Riviera in Hell’s Kitchen with its bold flavors and breezy décor.
The striking, Miami-esque bi-level space features a 30-foot atrium, a dramatic two-story liquor tower and patio seating – al fresco on the sidewalk in front, and below a sunroof in the back.
As hinted at in the name of the restaurant, which evokes fresh water in its translation from Spanish, Chef Ulrich A. Sterling uses fresh, filtered water in his preparations. In a process done in house, the water is infused with flavor -- for now, cucumber is the only one being used -- adding a twist suitable for both drinking and cooking. The chef also plans to introduce mango- and papaya-flavored waters.
On the menu, Sterling’s influences range from throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean, with noticeable touches from Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Mexico and Cuba. “My love affair with Latin food started at my first New York City job,” says the chef, referring to the now-defunct Chicama on East 18th Street, where his mentor was the renowned Raymond Mohan. “He threw me on the line and said, ‘sink or swim.’”
The idea at Agua Dulce is to bring innovative interpretations to some of the tried-and-true Latin favorites, achieving great taste while promoting social consciousness through the use of fresh, seasonal products from local farms. “I enjoy taking classic Latin food and playing with it a bit,” says the chef. “I think it lends an important emphasis on fun and enjoyment for the guests.”
Highlights among the starters are the exceptional salmon citrus ceviche, marinated sliced salmon with a jalapeno kick that bursts forward without overpowering (and which incorporates the cucumber-infused water), and the yellow fin tuna tiradito, thinly sliced cuts that are smooth and tender and neatly balanced with a refreshing minted lychee salsita. The house-made guacamole is also outstanding, nicely seasoned and perfectly textured, chunky but blended just enough to be scooped up comfortably using the accompanying tortilla chips.
Among the entrees, the smoked tea braised beef short rib is a knockout, with meat that falls off the bone to the touch, accompanied by a side of soy-charred string beans with a succulence that lets the vegetable hold its own alongside the main dish. The calabaza-stuffed poblanos, with romesco sauce and Tetilla cheese, make for a satisfying vegetarian option. Of everything we tasted on the menu, the only disappointment was the moqueca mixta, a Brazilian mixed seafood stew. The plate here consists of mussels and a few clams (there was no other seafood and the cashews mentioned on the menu were nowhere to be found) in a bland, watery, white coconut milk soup, an underwhelming deviation from the dish’s traditional heartier composition and orange-colored sauce. For dessert, the warm chocolate cake with chili sauce is a worthwhile closer if you do manage to have room for it.
Since opening July 28, the place has been “very busy, constantly,” Chef Sterling says. So what are the ingredients that keep this new business bustling while many other restaurants are struggling? The moderate price point, for one, he says. “You can come in here and spend a little or a lot. Without spending too much…you can leave fat and happy.”
Sterling also pointed out that although several restaurants in the area serve foods from Latin America, they are all of a singular culture, whether Brazilian, Cuban, Dominican, etc., and none represent a sampling of the region. “There’s nothing like us,” Sterling says. “We’re a unique oasis amidst a sea of Thai restaurants and some others.”
In this venture, owners Daniela and Chris LaMotta teamed up with operating partner Fernando Riquelme (formerly of Pampano, Mesa Grill and Rosa Mexicano) with a mission “to deliver warm, attentive service with irresistible fare at approachable rates in an unforgettable atmosphere.” To help realize their vision, the architectural design, by Sciefly’s Peter Sibilia and Damien Vizuete, revolves around the theme of water, with allusions to the sea at all turns – in the maritime color palette of misty green and aqua; in the textures – including sheer, metallic, white marble, and reflective surfaces; in the decorative cutout graphics; and in the open structural flow of the space.
Dinner is served from 4 p.m. – 11 p.m. Monday-Sunday; a late-night menu is available Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. (plans are to extend the late-night menu to all nights in the future.) The restaurant is open for lunch Monday-Friday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; a brunch menu is offered Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m.- 4 p.m.
Agua Dulce, in partnership with the U.S. nonprofit organization The Resource Foundation, supports the Latin American Clean Water Initiative, which is dedicated to increasing access to clean drinking water among the poor in nine Latin American countries (Argentina, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela). One hundred percent of proceeds from sales of Agua Dulce’s infused filtered waters will go to supporting this initiative.
Agua Dulce, 802 Ninth Avenue, between 53rd and 54th Streets, 212-262-1299.