The Draw: Shareable small plates of pan-Latin dishes in a bustling room
The Drawback: Uneven kitchen, thunderous noise when busy
Don’t Miss: Grilled short ribs and morcilla; chilaquiles; yuca bread; empanadas
Details: Small plates, $3 to $18; platters, $36 to $72. Street parking. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; weekend brunch, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Back when Anthony Bourdain was cooking at Les Halles in New York City in the 1990s, I finally embraced the ghoulish pleasure of a proper piece of blood sausage. It had a crumbly richness like nothing else and, with potatoes and a glass of tannic red, made a mighty bistro dinner. The Latin American version at Leña, called morcilla, is brilliant. When the plump little blimps are forked open, clotty filling blooms out, giving off humid aromas of cinnamon, cumin, oregano, cayenne, and chipotle. A tangy chimichurri sauce cuts nicely through the coagulate.
Oh, that every dish at Leña had been that good. To understand how wobbly my experiences have been, imagine drinking a bottle of mezcal while riding a fixed-gear bike through the sidewalk bar crowds that populate this part of Broadway on a Friday night. I don’t recommend that, mind you, just as I’m reluctant to recommend Leña right now, unless you like playing the lottery. Despite having had one very good meal there (out of five over several months), and despite a few bright spots in a recent dinner that was ultimately disappointing, the restaurant is a gamble.
Pictured, above: the morcilla, or blood sausage; Leña’s bar
I do like Leña’s ambitions. The year-old restaurant launched with chef Toby Prout at the helm, promising not fusion food, exactly, but instead a pan-Latin survey of casual dishes found from Mexico to Argentina. Check out Maricel Presilla’s 2012 cookbook Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America if you want to know how deep the culinary traditions of the region run: It’s 901 pages long. At Leña, Prout served something less scholarly than Presilla (who runs two pan-Latin restaurants and a marketplace in New Jersey), but he was obviously no fusion dilettante. He respected his source material. The menu included an empanada dough crafted from green plantains; croquettes made from yuca; a cream flavored with the citrusy fruit naranjilla; local goat rubbed with Peruvian ají peppers; and masa ground in-house for the tortillas.
Then, in May, Prout abruptly left the restaurant and was replaced by his deputy, Jerry Mansfield. There were destined to be menu changes, of course, but owner Jimmy Callahan assured us that Leña would hold true to its original vision.
The updated menu is still sprinkled with small plates, shareable treats, and street foods: tacos, empanadas, and ceviches, most of them with touches beyond the routine. There’s a lengthy list of meats roasted on the asado, Leña’s oak-wood grill (in fact, Leña means “firewood” in Spanish), and a handful of modern fusion twists, such as a riff on shrimp and grits that’s Latin-ified with chimichurri butter. If you’re not famished, a few dishes could be ordered as full-plate entrées, such as the grilled baby octopus with corn, plantains, and potatoes. The cooking is rarely fussy. Dishes arrive pell-mell as they’re ready. The waitstaff is uniformly friendly.
The ideal start for four carnivores is the $36 asado mixto platter, which, sampled before Prout departed, featured a hunk of chorizo (tasting, in a good way, of a dusty Mexican spice pantry); a chunk of that morcilla; some rare and gamey skirt steak; a block of tender rib-eye; and, most delicious of all, a strip of thin, flanken-style short ribs, which were succulent and charred and demanded that every bone be gnawed until clean. On the side were little white and blue potatoes, tender within and smoky from the grill. It was a small masterpiece of grilling.
During my most recent meal, I also liked the slow-roasted bison tacos, with a deeply savory filling that’s offset by a crunchy jicama slaw, and a bowl of chilaquiles with chicken. (The latter echoes the intent of that Japanese standard, tempura in udon soup: to capture a fleeting texture that is at once crunchy and soft.) For the chilaquiles, fried tortilla strips are made tender by a creamy, spicy poblano and fire-roasted tomatillo sauce. It’s chewy comfort food with crunchy endnotes. Mansfield’s revised version with roast chicken was vastly better than one I had ordered at brunch two months before.
But that’s the point: All along, the problem at Leña was wild variability. A ceviche that featured ragged flaps of fish in a bland marinade on the first try was less bland on my most recent visit, but it was still ragged and flappy. Pork belly on Mexican sopes—masa cakes fried until crisp and toothsome—was lackluster. Some dishes suggest less-than-rigorous sourcing: The tomatoes in an heirloom tomato salad were spongy and boring, just as, months before, a hearts of palm salad had been served with mushy watermelon. A hunk of tough hanger steak had none of the ropey, gamey distinction typical of that cut and was served with a cottony, underripe grilled tomato. For every tasty, precise empanada (this kitchen knows its empanadas—more on that shortly), there was a dish, like the aforementioned grilled octopus, that seemed to slur its flavors. Occasionally, things simply turned strange, as with a cilantro cream that accompanied a blueberry-topped pound cake for dessert.
Pictured above, right: Chilaquiles; the must-order pan de yuca
During meals good, fair, or mediocre, we gnawed and nodded and shouted. Leña, when busy, has a serious noise problem. There’s an open second-floor seating area at the end of the long, high, shoebox-shaped room, from which sounds bounce off the ceiling to the tables below. One weeknight, an adult birthday party up top filled the entire restaurant with hoots and screeches. Why does casual so often mean cacophonous? Eat late or very early if clamor bothers you. (It doesn’t seem to bother the young crowds that flock to Leña on Friday nights.)
As for the decor, the funky stretch of Broadway on which Leña resides is home to a good bit of cross-cultural design weirdness, some of it vintage, like the enchanting Mayan Theatre, built at a time when architects were raiding Aztec and Mayan traditions for art deco buildings, and some of it kitschy-fun, like the tiki-themed Adrift Tiki Bar & Grill. Leña’s owners avoided the temptation to try anything pan-Latin—probably a good decision—but what they opted for was an urban-brick-vintage look with a 25-foot-long bar centerpiece that’s pleasant but generic.
At brunch, Leña’s space acquires something approaching luster: Natural light flows off creamy painted walls and the stamped-tin ceiling, creating a sedate mood ideal for hangover recovery, should that be your goal. And even if your head isn’t pounding, Leña’s salty-eggy-corny brunch dishes, such as the chilaquiles or the chorizo hash, will start a late morning off nicely. Bottomless brunch mimosas for $14, on a two-hour limit, provide the hair of the dog.
With brunch often being a carb-heavy meal, I want to finish by praising Leña’s way with starchy textures. The pastry of a lovely empanada, stuffed with beef, egg, and olives, was tender but firm, perfect for a savory hand-pie. Pan de yuca, little rounds of cassava-based bread, had a sticky-soft texture reminiscent of Chinese steamed buns; our server correctly advised us to order a plate of them to mop up the lip-smacking gravy in a bowl of duck meatballs. For dessert, a plate of piping-hot fried yuca balls had a deep cocoa flavor, each crisp-skinned bite giving way to a seductive, chewy interior.
But even the siren song of all those carbs and that fragrant blood sausage is not enough to lure me back anytime soon. I’ve had a whole lotta Leña in recent months, and in the end, I found the spot to be more of a gamble than a staple.