The Culinary Institute of America's website states that Nao, the name of its new, formal restaurant, is "derived from the Latin root "neo", meaning to weave or intertwine. If they say so; it's hard to track this down without running into the dead end of the Greek neos, or new, so we'll just leave it there. What the website doesn't say is that the preferred pronunciation is nay-oh, as though we in South Texas couldn't get our tongues around the more mellifluous nah-oh. Oh well.
What the website also doesn't say is that nao is a Spanish term for ship, or vessel. Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria, was a nao-class vessel; he is said to have called it "a dull sailer and unfit for discovery." (The Niña and the Pinta were more-agile caravelles.) Some have suggested that Cortés's ship, the Santa Maria de la Concepción, was also a nao. Whether you now choose also to take the name Nao as a reflection of the spirit of exploration or symbolic of the old world's exploitation of the new, we leave to you. We come down on the side of adventure.
As in any voyage of discovery, all is not smooth sailing. More than a week after the festive grand opening, the anticipated a la carte menu still wasn't in force. "It's hung up between here and Hyde Park (the C.I.A.'s spiritual and physical home)," said one staffer. It wasn't until this Tuesday, in fact, that the menu was given the Good Housekeeping (figuratively) seal of approval: it will, I'm told, be identical to the last 3-courses-for-$24 menu but with a tag of $9 per each category. It's expected that there may be some further variation on this theme, perhaps to include a prix fixe option. Yes, the prices rose--get over it. For a menu this ambitious and unique, the original pricing was a gift, and it's still more than fair. (Though the wine list could use a few more Latin-grown grapes such as bonarda, carmenere, and tannat, its gentle pricing should stay right where it is; this is a gift I can get behind.)
Nao's menu will always be hard to review in the conventional sense; by intent, it will change somewhat with the arrival of each Latin chef. So far, Brazilian and Peruvian representatives have blown through, leaving their imprint behind. (Bolivia just made landfall on September 14 and 15 with the appearance of Chef Eric Calderón.) The Peruvian special dinner, for example, brought to our attention the existence of a practically prehistoric river fish called paiche and introduced several exotic fruits. A sense of dedication to authenticity was apparent almost immediately.
But the students who staff the restaurant under the direction of Venezuelan-born Executive Chef Geronimo Lopez, are also learning to play with their food — all within the framework of classic, French training, of course. Pretty-in-purple causitas present crab framed in violet potato. Pico en taco, a chilled appetizer, offers batons of cucumber, mango and more within a wafer-thin jicama "tortilla," all arrayed on a wave-form serving piece. (They have variously been exciting and ho-hum, depending, perhaps, on who is assembling them.) Picadillo in crisp plantain wafer comes to you in three cones of mashed plantain into which whipped cotijo cheese has been inserted, a very nicely seasoned picadillo, and a topping of avocado. The cones are a little fragile — and just a touch oily — but the contrasts in texture and temperature are beautifully orchestrated. I'm less thrilled with the pasty texture of the yucatots (also available at the creative bar, along with a few other small plates), and dishes with duck have yet to excite. But a "chilled" starter of grilled panela cheese topped with a salad of slivered nopal played cool against warm and crisp against soft to stunning effect.
Seafood appears in several guises at Nao. Diverging from the more common shrimp preparation, the aguachile is rendered with cubes of mahi-mahi; it's a move that makes for more forthright fish flavors, and it works. Beautifully grilled baby octopus mojo isleño comes to you over wilted arugula accompanied by a nutty cilantro pesto and a few artful dabs of a curry "mayo." This works, too. The more ambitious "main" that was snapper tikin xic, grilled in banana leaves, did not come together perfectly, however. This traditional Yucatecan recipe counts on rusty-red achiote paste and bitter orange juice for its impact, and though the color was right, the flavors seemed pallid, the texture was somewhat pasty, and the accompaniments didn't click. Rubbed pork belly to the rescue.
It may be time to declare a moratorium on this popular product, but before doing so, try it here if it remains on the menu. The "South Caribbean spice" and piloncillo glaze teamed up to make an already lush product even more decadent; a contrastingly sharp salad of peppery watercress struggled mightily to blunt the belly fat just a bit but lost the battle. Some causes are simply hopeless, no matter how well-intentioned.
Many of the C.I.A.'s also-lush pastries can be sampled at the casual bakery café around the corner, and you are encouraged to do so. But the desserts at Nao have a more distinctly Latin bent. Xoconostle, a sour relative of the blandly sweet prickly pear most often mixed with margaritas in these parts, is used in a salad dressing elsewhere on the menu, but it can also be stewed in a syrup to yield a very intriguing confit, especially good when paired with a sorbet of another unusual fruit, guanabana, and accessorized with toasted angel food cake. No dull sailing for this nao.
Nao: New World Flavors
312 Pearl Parkway, Ste 2104
Best Bets Try any of the ceviches, picadillo in crisp plantain cones, slow-roasted pork belly ... or just close your eyes and point
Hours 5-10pm, Tues-Sat Prices $$-$$$