For those of you keeping track at home, the dim, cavernous, warehouselike dining space on West 24th Street that until recently housed the star-crossed, though accomplished, Pan-Latino restaurant Nuela is now home to an accomplished (and also possibly star-crossed) Pan-Peruvian establishment called Raymi. The new venture (the optimistic name means Celebration of the Sun in Spanish) is owned by some of the same people who ran Nuela, but like a football team hastily switching coaches (and uniforms) in midseason, they’ve made a series of wholesale, slightly jarring changes on the fly. The industrious Richard Sandoval (his ever-expanding Pan-Latino empire encompasses twenty establishments, including the Mexican seafood restaurant Pampano on East 49th Street) is now in the kitchen, and the antic, flaming-orange color scheme of the former restaurant has been scrapped in favor of a more subdued, moody combination of black, white, and woodsy brown.
“Welcome to the Bat Cave,” quipped one of my bemused guests as we peered around the front of the house at Raymi, which has been appointed with gilt-framed mirrors, a wall of black and white tiles, and a bizarre sculptural arrangement of plywood window slats that rises toward the ceiling. The bones of the awkward three-room setup are the same as before, but little pots filled with cacti have been hung here and there in an attempt to create a more homey, rusticated feel. The tables are now made with thick polished wood and set with rows of guttering candles, like in the dining hall of a Spanish hacienda. The bar area features a thatch of newly installed dining counters designed for the sampling of ceviches, and one of the two ceviche bars from the old restaurant has been converted into a pisco bar, where you can addle yourself during the nightly happy hour with pisco drinks infused with exotic ingredients like lemon verbena, fresh figs, and green tea.
These antic infusions have their charms, but the best way to alleviate the vague sense of foreboding that still hangs like a cloud over this perpetually feng shui-challenged space is to go straight to Sandoval’s spare, surprisingly accomplished menu. The first thing we sampled was the causa of the day, which consisted, on this evening, of a soft pedestal of puréed potatoes topped with chunks of cool, melting salmon folded with mayonnaise and slivers of avocado. Next came a series of decorative Peruvian tiraditos (a kind of marinated sashimi; try the fluke classico), which were laid out on long white plates with an elegant, Mondrian-like precision. The ceviche selection is limited by the standards of other cebicherias around town (there are only four to choose from), but they’re served in bowls to promote sharing, and the best of them—the delicious Asian-accented salmon chifa scattered with peanuts and bits of crunchy wonton—was so good we ordered it twice.
Peruvian cuisine is famous for its profusion of dizzying flavors and influences (from Japan, China, Spain, Latin America, and West Africa), and Sandoval and his fellow chef-owner Jaime Pesaque do a better job than their predecessors of editing these down for the finicky New York palate and presenting a coherent vision on the plate. During my visits to the dark dining hall, my tasters and I grazed on bowls of well-crisped pork belly tossed with fried calamari, skewers of yakitori-like antichucos stuck with grilled chunks of hanger steak and prawns, and crunchy, cigar-size spring rolls filled with shrimp and pork. The lone empanada on the menu is braided along its edges like a fine French pastry and filled with unexpected deposits of melted mozzarella, and if you order the unassuming-sounding Peruvian corn cake, you’ll receive a square of loose, gourmet-quality polenta buried in a buttery mass of mushrooms.
“I didn’t know they had steak like this in Peru,” commented one of the portly beefeaters at my table as he cut happily into a slab of New York strip (from the ubiquitous La Frieda), which the chefs at Raymi gussy up with a Peruvian “tacu tacu” cake made with lima beans, and a pot of fresh chimichurri. My potentially dreary chicken entrée was similarly enlivened with a quail egg and a delicately creamy sauce flavored with ají amarillo pepper, and that old fine-dining standby, seared salmon, was plated in a Nobu-esque way, with a teriyaki-like consommé garnished with threads of bok choy. Sandoval’s polite, slightly denatured version of arroz con pato is less festive and satisfying than the one his predecessors served at Nuela, so if you’re in search of a classic Peruvian dish, try the coastal specialty cod cau cau, made here with a block of seared cod set over a scrim of thick, buttery shellfish stew spiced with ají amarillo pepper and turmeric.
The room at Raymi was as quiet as a tomb when I first dropped in early this summer, but thanks to Sandoval’s palatable brand of nuevo New York, Pan-Peruvian cooking, business seems to have perked up lately. On my most recent visit, the dark back room was still mostly empty, but the front of the house was full, and both bars were lined with assorted pisco addicts merrily toasting each other in the stygian gloom. The generally tame desserts—crispy doughnuts, mini-ice-cream cones with honey, a zany fusion dulce de leche panna cotta spiced with miso—don’t add to this tenuous sense of liveliness, but they don’t detract from it either. Raymi is also now open for a stout business-style lunch, and I’m happy to report that if you sit by the windows, in the front café area, it’s possible to gobble a variety of tasty Peruvian-themed sandwiches (crisped cod with spicy mayo, moist roast chicken with fried sweet plantains and ají verde) while enjoying a few actual rays of late-summer sunshine.
43 W. 24th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-929-1200
Hours: Dinner Monday through Thursday and Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $11 to $18; entrées, $22 to $32.
Ideal Meal: Salmon chifa or tuna Nikkei ceviche, fluke classico, Peruvian corn cake, cod cau cau, dulce de leche panna cotta.
Note: A slightly more elaborate selection of ceviches is available during happy hour at the bar in small, $4 bar bites.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the accomplished Pan-Peruvian cooking, minus a star for the perpetually feng shui-challenged space.