As its lumbering full name implies, Patria Restaurant and Mixology Lounge is a hybrid—part fine dining with a marquee chef’s terrific Latin fare, part thumping disco and bar. A further dichotomy exists within the lounge. There’s an upstairs room devoted to late-night house music, while Latin fusion reigns at its downstairs counterpart.
Happily, neither club gets pumping until after 10 pm, so serious foodies and casual diners can relax in the relative calm of the dining room, feasting on the mostly excellent offerings of executive chef Andrew DiCataldo. This Johnson & Wales grad, now 48, made his mark as an originator of the Nuevo Latino food movement back in the ’90s, first in Miami and most notably at Patria in New York, where he worked alongside Douglas Rodriguez. He took over after Rodriguez departed in 1999, and in 2001 the restaurant maintained its three-star rating from the New York Times.
After a couple of ill-fated ventures, DiCataldo in 2010 returned to his hometown of Rahway to cook at the Rail House, which had replaced David Drake’s eponymous restaurant. “I was there four months,” he relates, “when one day a food runner came in and asked me if I had heard anything about a new restaurant named Patria that had just opened down the street.” DiCataldo checked it out pronto. He discovered that Fabian Huerfano, a pal from the defunct New York Patria, was now a partner overseeing the bar and wine program at Patria’s Rahway reincarnation. “When it first launched, the concentration was on the nightclub and mixology component,” DiCataldo explains, “and the chef had no experience in Latin cuisine. We decided that I would come in to do the cuisine that I had pioneered and come to love.” That was last May.
The menu, which is especially deep in tapas and appetizers, is predominantly modern Latino. Plantain-crusted tilapia, a DiCataldo signature, exemplifies the nuevo touch, turning a fairly innocuous fish into a succulent treat by coating one side of a fillet with pulverized plantain chips, sautéing until golden and crunchy, and serving it with a garlic-white wine sauce finished with lemon juice, cilantro and butter. Other dishes skew more traditional, like pollo a la plancha, a mojo-marinated half-chicken accompanied by classic yellow Spanish rice. Still others would not be out of place on any modern American menu. These include Caesar and chopped salads, Kobe-beef sliders, pollo Milanese and branzino with capers and olives.
The clientele varies not only by time of night, but by day of the week. Saturday dinner draws mostly middle-aged parties. Sunday adds families to the mix. On one visit we witnessed a large, multigenerational birthday party for a Latino granddad. At the climax, staff members entered the dining room, one strumming a guitar, and serenaded the gent with a spirited Spanish rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Our table observed the birthday bash while munching on complimentary tortilla chips with superb flame-roasted tomato-and-pepper salsa and sipping well-made caipirinhas and Chilean wines—sauvignon blanc and carmenere. About 18 enjoyable, easy-on-the-wallet wines are offered both by the glass and bottle. One time, we ordered glasses of sangria. We had asked our amiable server if he recommended red or white, and we should have taken his advice and stuck with red. When he overheard one of us comment on how strong the white was, he offered to get it adjusted then and there. We experienced this kind of responsiveness consistently.
One of our requests was for bread to sop up the brick-red broth of a Peruvian seafood soup called pariguela that features plush, tender clams, calamari, mussels, octopus and shrimp sautéed in a concentrated paste of roasted tomato and fresh and dried chiles. But DiCataldo doesn’t stop there; he adds splashes of cream and lobster sauce, which impart depth and complexity. A tasting of piquant ceviches brought three white porcelain bowls piled high with different fresh, marinated seafood. My favorite was charred scallops with mango, red chile and lime.
Carnivores get their due, too, with starters like tacos with succulent carne asada (barbecued skirt steak), and meaty, moist, slow-cooked pork ribs slathered with a sweet, smoky barbecue sauce of ancho chile and puréed cherries. One not-to-be missed appetizer consists of flame-toasted cornmeal arepas filled with molten Manchego, mozzarella and goat cheeses. A dish of small-diameter calamari rings dusted with smoked paprika and sea salt is downright elegant—and the polar opposite of another starter, a workmanlike affair called jalea. There, breaded and fried calamari, shrimp, tilapia and unbearably dry yucca were rendered dense and heavy.
Clearly, starters can comprise a meal here. But entrées rate, too. I would be hard-pressed to pick a fave from among a) crispy, shredded, slow-roasted pork over a purée of wonderfully starchy boniato (Caribbean sweet potato); b) churrasco—sweet and spicy slices of marinated grilled skirt steak; and c) seared shrimp and scallops with lobster sauce and lobster mashed potatoes. Only one entrée, seafood fideos, misses entirely. These thin noodles were alternately soft and soggy or hard and dry.
If there’s one aspect of Patria I would change, it would be the heavy-handed décor. The 60-seat dining room mimics a too-dark, not-very-swank lounge. Just about every component, from the wood floors to the wood ceiling and the rough-hewn wood beams that run up the walls, are of darkest brown. So, too, are the chunky, hand-hewn tables. Although walls are lined in copper-colored vinyl “bricks,” the lighting is so dim that these appear brown, too. The only relief comes from white curtain panels, tied back and hung from the beam between each table.
I recommend letting dessert be the final memory of a meal here. Chocolate fondue is a delicious and shareable denouement, with crunchy churros (fried, doughnut-like sticks), fudge brownies, coconut macaroons, pineapple and banana for dipping. But equally appealing are the rich housemade café con leche ice cream and a flan made with cream cheese for a thicker, velvety texture that should win applause from those who find regular flans a bit slippery in texture. We can also applaud the return of the accomplished Andrew DiCataldo to the cooking that put him on the map.