Last night friends were taking me out for one of those birthdays with a zero on the end and we had reservations at Babalu, hoping for a nightclub atmosphere, music, and dancing. So we were quite disappointed when, after having called to confirm reservations at about 2:00 in the afternoon, Babalu called again at about 3:00 to say they were having "problems in the kitchen" and had transferred our reservation to Zona Rosa, their new sister restaurant. Mid-afternoon of a blizzard is not the best time to try to get reservations for eight at a party venue, so we decided to go with the flow.
Zona Rosa, 40 West 56th Street between 5th and 6th, just opened this past Thursday. The chef is Alex Garcia of Calle Ocho and Babalu and was the opening chef at Patria. The food at Zona Rosa is "nuevo mexicano." And very good it is.
The restaurant itself is on two levels with the bar and a comfortable-looking lounge upstairs. We chose to sit upstairs since there was a raised platform in the rear of the room (perhaps for future live performances? Dont know) with three tables that could seat our party comfortably and was somewhat set off from the rest of the guests.
The evening got off to a rollicking good start with well-prepared, not-too-sweet, tequila-based cocktails. The eponymous cocktail, the Zona Rosa ($10; other coktails ranged from $7 to $9), was Jose Cuervo Especial (not my fave by a long shot) with cointreau infused with hibiscus and rose petals. Holiday pretty and very addictive. And that from a dry Wild Turkey Manhattan gal.
With eight people (and a significant number of Zona Rosas) I didnt get to taste or remember all the dishes, but here are few highlight.
We ordered "medium" (in deference to the more delicate palates at the table) spicy guacamole (not on the menu) with cocktails. It was chunky and with more heat than Id expected (a good thing) and served with what may well have been homemade chips. Salty, crunchy, and definitely above par. I thought it was significantly better than the overrated, overpriced guacamole at Rosa Mexicano. The spiciness of the guacamole turned out to be a pleasantly surprising theme at Zona Rosa. They have not, at least yet, reduced heat for the lowest common denominator. Many of the dishes had some real zing, yet were not overwhelming for those who dont usually go for "hot."
The empanada appetizers ($11), wild mushrooms with corn and huitlacoche served with a jalapeño and tomatillo salsa were terrific. As were the steamed mussels ($12) with chipotle in hoja santa broth with epazote dumplings. Again wonderfully spicy and flavorful, although the mussels were perhaps not as plump and fat as one might hope for. Someone had the ceviche mixto (scallops, octopus, clams, mussels and calamari with chile piquin) and said it was very, very good--but I didnt taste it.
For mains, a number of people had the tampiqueña ($24), a grilled hanger steak served with what they called "firecracker" rice (not sure what that was) with rajas poblanas and mole. A lovely and very flavorful piece of meat served medium-rare. I had the mahi mahi ($24) prepared with a toasted pumpkin-seed crust and lobster mango pico de gallo. Again, very well prepared, and there were actually noticeable, though small, chunks of lobster. It was served on a bed of spicy green sauce (dont know what it was made of) that, again, had a real and delightful kick to it. Someone had what was called a "turkey filet mignon" that was served with bacon, mole negro, asparagus, and wild mushrooms. It looked great, but I didnt get to taste that either. There was also, by the way, a vegetarian option among the main courses, but Ive forgotten what it was.
We tried one each of the four desserts. By then, I was losing track of details. I remember a very satisfying soft chocolate cake/pudding and ice-cream presentation that was appreciated by the chocolate lovers and a didnt-quite-make-it tequila flan. But the real hit were crepes, which Im embarrassed to admit I dont remember how they were prepared (we were having a VERY good time by then) but were deemed a real triumph.
By the way, if there was a wine list, we didnt see it. We were hooked on those Zona Rosas.
We started out disappointed at being bounced from Babalu and ended up more than just pleased to have landed at Zona Rosa where, even after only a few days, theres obviously some exciting things going on in the kitchen.