Calle Ocho Goes Beyond Brunch

You know those brunch places where the food is cheap, the drinks are unlimited, and the party goes until about 3 pm when everyone hits the hay for Sunday nap time?
 I used to think that was Calle Ocho, a Latin American restaurant on the Upper West side. The restaurant recently moved locations to a nearby space inside the Excelsior Hotel. I have been there for its bottomless sangria brunch, featuring many different types of serve-yourself sangrias and tasty Latin food, but had never thought to go there for dinner. 
The new space features several cavernous rooms with bright paintings and low lighting, creating a festive, upscale atmosphere. 
 Mojito
I have never been able to stray from the sangria before, but these mojitos are my new go-to drink at Calle Ocho, whether they are included in the price of brunch or not. Very strong, but well balanced with sugar and fresh mint, just one of these had me buzzed. 
Yeah, I am that lightweight.
Pao de Queijo
This Brazilian cheese bread was similar to a gougere in its lightness and cheesy interior. Gluten free and made with yucca flour, the rolls were positively airy inside, and almost dissolved in the mouth without chewing, leaving behind the grassy, nutty taste of Queso Fresco. 
Bean Dip
They were especially delicious when paired with the hearty, aromatic bean dip. It tasted sweet and spicy at the same time, a welcome contrast to the comforting cheesiness of the rolls.
 
 Marinated Aji Tuna, Ginger, Cilantro, Mustard Vinaigrette and Cured Salmon, Aji Amarillo, Sour Orange, Pineapple
These ceviches set the tone for the meal to come – herbal, fresh, pungent flavors. 
The tuna was good, if not outstanding. The fish was obviously high quality – mild flavored and with a soft but not mushy texture. The problem was that the marinade overpowered the fish’s delicate flavor. The heady cilantro, spicy ginger and tangy mustard totally obscured the tuna’s natural taste. A bit more tuna or a bit less marinade would have done this tuna well. 
The salmon, on the other hand, was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The salmon was absolutely silky in texture, and the orange and pineapple in the marinade complimented the salmon’s natural fatty mouth feel and buttery taste. The aji amarillo was the perfect amount of spice – a bit sweet along with the front-of-mouth tingling spice. It broke up the salmon’s comforting taste and texture and made the dish interesting and delicious. 
 Colombian Sweet Corn Arepa, Ropa Vieja, Crema Nata, Criolla Salad and Bacon Wrapped Almond Stuffed Dates, Hearts of Palm, Cabrales
The arepa was delicious, just what you might expect an arepa to be, but with a lush and rich filling that belies the arepa’s humble background. The arepa itself was almost custardy – sweet and moist, redolent of corn and summer. The shortribs were extremely rich and full in their beefiness. The salad beneath it, with bitter greens, cut through the richness of the meat and added freshness to the rather heavy appetizer. 
The dates were my favorite bite of the meal, no question. Sweet, soft dates surrounded crunchy almonds and the whole thing was wrapped in salty, smokey, crispy bacon. The whole thing was drizzled in a foam made of pungent, funky blue cheese, making the dates sweeter, the bacon meatier and the whole dish round and satisfying. I have no idea how the hearts of palm were, because I couldn’t tear my mind away from the dates. They blew my mind and are a must order. 
  Roasted Stripped Bass, Serrano Ham-Chick Pea, Roasted Pepper Sauce
This was a very earthy take on fish – the fish was flaky and mild, falling almost into the background of the sweet and charred taste of the roasted pepper sauce. The ham and chick pea ragout was another hit of depth and earthiness – salty and robust, with toothsome chickpeas and salty, crunchy bits of ham. Though this was a well made dish, I prefer a bit more of an oceanic taste when I eat fish – this is more for someone who craves smoky or earthy flavors.  
Cuban Style “Steal Frites”, Traditional Chimichurri
This blew me away! Not because of the yucca “frites,” which I actually found oddly chalky and dry. Not because of the chimichurri, which was pleasantly herbaceous with cilantro, parsley and citrus zest. Not even because of the perfectly fried onion strings, sweet and crunchy, juicy in the middle and caramelized to a burnt crisp at the edges. IT was because of the steak. The steak, cooked to a perfect deep pink, had an almost sugary crust that varied between sweet and spicy with the zip of black pepper. The steak had a bit of chew to it, with a slightly aged, funky taste to it. Just fatty enough, and with a strong beefy flavor. This was the entree I would get again. 
Though I had to leave before dessert, I have no reservations about saying that this meal surpassed my expectation. The prices are commensurate with the neighborhood, the service is efficient and helpful and the food is very tasty. Not quite a destination restaurant, Calle Ocho IS a great destination for a drink and some appetizers – at least some of those stuffed dates.
Calle Ocho – not just for brunch anymore. 
*Note: My meal was paid for by the restaurant.  I was not paid or required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, impartial.*

Comments

  1. Ada says:

    Yay, you were in my neighborhood! Calle Ocho is such a fun place for brunch, it's like one big giant party! I still haven't been to their new space in the Excelsior, though. They used to be located right across the street from it.

  2. Sarah says:

    I loved the sangria and mojitos – dangerous!

    Forgot to write about those little cheese breads. I want one of them now, actually.

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