Nuevo Haven

O n the first floor of the multi-story restaurant Pacífico, the ceiling is painted with blue ripples, as if everything—bar, tables and diners themselves—were sitting at the bottom of a calm but colorful tide pool. To the right of the entrance, the eatery’s open kitchen is tiled in warm hues. To the left, the bar is tiled in opalescent rums, whiskies, scotches, wines and tequilas—of this last option, some 120 varieties—servicing a cocktail menu derived from across the pond and beyond the gulf.

Pacífico’s full menu, like its drink menu, pulls in different elements of Spanish, Central and South American cuisines. This medley is characteristic of Nuevo Latino, a culinary style that adds the flare of French and Californian cooking techniques to traditional Latin dishes. Popularized most famously by chef Douglas Rodriguez in New York during the ’80s, Pacífico carries the Nuevo Latino torch in New Haven, thanks in large part to head chef and co-owner Rafael Palomino.

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The varied and very shareable dishes in the tapas section of the menu offer the quickest route to fluency in Nuevo Latino. The Ostras Fritas Mofongo ($10) is a Puerto Rican-inspired dish of four oysters. Their meat was taken from the shell, fried and placed back in the half shells atop a puree of sweet plantains, followed by a drizzling of milky saffron-mojito sauce. The compliment of soft fruit and crisp shellfish gave the four islets of oyster shells the flavor of island life while the dish’s symmetrical, minimalistic presentation gave it the sense of high dining from which Nuevo Latino derived.

The Ceviche de Camaron Estilo Ecuatoriano ($12), meanwhile, is inspired by Ecuador’s gazpacho-like take on ceviche, which general manager Walter Vera says uses more citrus and tomato juice than most other varieties. Featuring a cocktail of shrimp cured in citrus, bits of avocado and tomato, all in a thick, cool tomato-juice spiced with chipotle, it came in an elegant martini glass with a long leaf of fried plantain that follows the line of the glass out and over the dish. The plantain, curved slightly by the frying, looked as if it were caught in a gentle breeze.

The same intricate tastes and refined presentation you might expect to find in a French restaurant continue, and are perhaps enhanced, among the menu’s raciones, which are closer in size to appetizers than tapas. The Anticuchos ($11) featured three long chunks of angus steak on skewers, lain in a row over sliced fingerling potatoes. Resembling the blocks-on-logs depicted in scenes of ancient architectural feats, the dish itself is a minor culinary one. The chunks of angus were powerfully flavored with Argentine chimichurri, with crisp outer ends and interiors like cushions, and juices that soaked the fingerling potatoes below.

Quesadilla de Pato ($13) is the one and only quesadilla on the menu. Like a regular quesadilla, the basics of tortilla and queso—smoked gouda in this case—were still present, but rather than the standard chicken or beef, Pacífico’s boasts tender shredded duck. Jalapeño aioli brought heat, while a pomegranate reduction brought sweet. It was delicious.

Perpetually earning the “Nuevo” designation, Pacífico’s menu has and continues to evolve. But Vera says there are several signature dishes, all entrees, that’ve been on the menu since Pacífico opened 10 years ago and won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Among them are the Paella Palomino ($24; add lobster for $8.95), Chef Palomino’s take on the Spanish mélange of rice, vegetables and seafood. There’s also the Churrasco a la Parrilla ($28)—grilled skirt steak, with “Chinese-style” stir-fried rice, sweet plantains and the same creamy saffron-mojito sauce that earlier graced the oysters. Vera’s favorite dish is also among the permanent fixtures: Camarones y Vieras con Ravioli de Langosta ($26)—sea scallops and shrimp with lobster ravioli in a chipotle, honey-chardonnay sauce.

To end the meal, Vera recommended the Dulce de Leche Cheesecake ($8), and I’m glad he did. A thicker-than-average filling beautifully moderated but didn’t mask the intense sweet taste of the syrupy but also caramel-like dulce de leche. Helping me savor it, the cake’s thickness slowed both fork and teeth.

Even after 10 years in New Haven, Pacífico is still worth savoring, not least because, within city limits, Pacífico’s commitment to Nuevo Latino is as special as its oceanic canopy.

220 College St, New Haven (map)
Sun-Wed 12pm-10pm, Thur 12pm-11pm, Fri-Sat 12pm-1:30am
(203) 772-4002

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik with the exception of images 2 and 7, which were taken by Dan Mims.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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