New In The Neighborhood: Agua Dulce

I'm still thinking about my Tuesday lunch at Hell's Kitchen's newest addition, Agua Dulce. Specializing in what I'd categorize as modern Cuban cuisine, the creatively designed space (by Peter Siblia and Damien Vizuete) is beautiful, open, light, multifunctional, and feels more like Miami than New York (not like I've ever actually been to Miami, but let's move on...).

The atmosphere is warm--at least at lunchtime--and the friendly staff is incredibly welcoming. When I popped in yesterday afternoon to show Tony the space, we briefly met the chef, Ulrich Sterling, who also seemed to be absolutely lovely. And after a quick Google search, I learned from Time Out New York that the restaurant installed a carbon filtration system to create its own waters (still, bubbly, and flavored), the proceeds from which go to help clean water programs in underserved Latin American communities.

We decided we'd go for lunchtime cocktails: My friend, at the waiter's suggestion, went for the frozen margarita (which was much more flavorful than the typical), and I chose the one with habañero-infused tequila, mango, and something else (hmmm, I wonder why I can't remember...). Both were tasty (Reza, the bartender, does an excellent job)...and packed quite the punch. To keep us busy while we sipped our drinks, we dove into a bowl of salsa de cangrejo, warm creamy crab dip, and yuca chips (which also came with taro chips). It was a sort of nice oceany departure from what I usually order, and would make a great bar snack/share, as it was a good compliment to the cocktails.

For our main course, we decided to share two sandwiches: I usually avoid Cubanos, since they're often piles of boiled meats and Finlandia Swiss cheese (one of the few things that makes me gag). But Agua Dulce's version of the classic was a pleasant surprise, comprising chunks of shredded pork, ham, home-made pickles, and some kind of real Swiss cheese (not Finlandia). We probably would have thought it was fabulous (which it was) had we not paired it with the ropa vieja sandwich, which was completely off-the-hook. Instead of the stewy shredded strings of beef that's the usual incarnation of the dish, Agua Dulce's ropa vieja is chunks of wonderfulness--stewed then grilled short ribs (or grilled then stewed? Or just grilled?)--served on a crusty yet soft bread with a side of avocado crema. Really, really yummy. Both sandwiches were served with yuca fries (which are more substantial than French fries), so at $11 and $12 respectively, an Agua Dulce sandwich is well worth the money.

A dinner visit is a future must. I'll keep you posted.

Agua Dulce is at 802 Ninth Avenue, between 53rd and 54th Streets.

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