Coppelia: The 24-Hour Cuban Diner We Didn't Know We Needed
207 West 14th Street, New York NY 10011 (b/n Seventh and Eighth; map); 212-858-5001; coppelianyc.com
Service: Genuinely welcoming and reasonably well-versed in the food
Setting: Bright, elegant space that's simultaneously diner and polished restaurant
Must-Haves: Ropa vieja, ceviche, Torrejas de Oliva
Cost: Everything $16 and under
Drinks: Check out our post »
Grade: Food, recommendable B+; as a 24-hour diner, A-
Some restaurants open to fill a clear need. One could've predicted a market for upscale fast food for locavore Brooklynites, say; or a destination-worthy Harlem restaurant that's true to the neighborhood. But some restaurants strike a note so right that they seem as if they were needed all along.
I didn't know that 14th Street needed a 24-hour Cuban diner, polished but homey, Latin-and-American, with cheery yellow walls and remarkable desserts and Maná and Juanes as the soundtrack—but now that I've been, it seems the most logical idea in the world.
New York may boast more late-night dining options than most cities; still, when you're in need of 3:00am sustenance, they can be very hard to find. It's how one ends up eating Greek diner nachos and $1 pizza and overpriced mac-and-cheese; it's just there. But for something a bit, well, better?
"There isn't a good Cuban-Latin diner in New York," says chef/owner Julian Medina (Toloache, Yerba Buena), "that's open 24 hours. People want food after they go out. Chefs want food after work. And I wanted someplace for them to go." That's why he opened Coppelia.
Warm and welcoming, with canary-yellow walls and dark woods, Coppelia is simultaneously diner and restaurant, spacious for its Chelsea/West Village location, with an elegant bar that seems just right for morning coffee or a workday lunch or a last-stop plate of nachos. A brunch menu is pending, as is a liquor license ("We don't have a crazy drinks program," says Medina; "we want five perfect drinks—mojitos, sangria, like that"). Coppelia's 24-hour service will begin by the end of May, when it'll be well-positioned for summer night crowds from Chelsea, the Meatpacking District, the West Village, Union Square—all stumbling distance away.
Calling itself a "casual Latin comfort food restaurant," it's nominally Cuban, with forays into Mexico and Venezuela and Peru, and more than a little late-night American: macaroni and cheese, burgers, nachos. (And plenty of foods that blur that border: fried cheese or croquetas de queso are at home anywhere.) It's a diner, too, in the extent of its menu—burgers and sandwiches, entreés and egg dishes, soups and sides.
Many of Coppelia's best dishes are well-done classics, among them a ceviche ($10.95) with firm cuts of flounder in a marinade of lime and the intensely flavored, moderately spicy aji amarillo; it's paired with fork-tender sweet potato and maiz cancha (hard-popped corn) in a dish that's tart and refreshing, crunchy and fresh. Guacamole ($7.95) is at that great consistency where it's creamy and scoopable without losing all texture. It's well-salted and limed, with a trio of chips; the tortilla best for scooping, the shatter-crisp boniato our favorite for snacking.
All of the snacks were hot, crisp, and straightforwardly satisfying: an empanada ($2.25) with a creamy, well-seasoned corn interior and pastry that wasn't stiff in the slightest; a super-crunchy, if not intensely flavorful yucca rellena ($2.25); fried cheese balls (croquetas de queso, $2.25) that are lighter than one would expect, making them all the easier to pop back. And while the Mac & Chicharrón ($8.95) approaches overkill—we're all for something crisp and porky as a mac-and-cheese topping, but fatty pork belly suspended in a sea of fatty sauce is a little much—I can imagine it getting inhaled late at night.
Tender, fatty pernil ($14.95) is intensely porky, its richness cut nicely by pickled onions and the freshness of olive oil, lime, and garlic; more chicharrón and those onions add crunch. Similarly classic but interesting was the ropa vieja ($15.95). While many versions are heavily sauced and so soft they hardly need to be chewed, this version is meaty and crisp-edged and full-flavored. After the meat is cooked initially and shredded, Medina sauteés it with onions, poblanos, and chile de árbol for a complex spice and char on the edges.
We loved the fish itself in the Pescado Encendido ($15.95), a superbly crunchy potato crust shielding firm, flaky tilapia, as well as the briny, salty olive- and caper-studded tomato sauce; the fufu-plantain mash is buttery and sweet enough to appear on the dessert menu—whether that's off-putting or appealing depends on your preference. But there's no doubt the fish is well-cooked, as were the Camarones Diablo ($15.95), taut and firm, with a sweet and full-flavored rum glaze and soft-centered, crisp tostones.
Of course, half the fun of a diner is that you can have breakfast for dinner; Coppelia's savory breakfast dishes are simple and done well, what you're craving when you crave eggs. In the Huevos Rancheros ($7.95), moros (Cuban-style rice and black beans) are topped with a crisp corn tortilla and a tomatillo salsa that carries some heat; huevos rancheros often pile soft ingredients on more soft ingredients, but the crunch of the tortilla stood out nicely from the runny egg.
We'd also order the Huevos Habaneros ($8.95) again, two poached eggs in the caper-studded tomato sauce that appears on several other dishes, with crisp, sharp shards of red onion; they top thin slices of ham on a thinly-pounded piece of bread. While the bread was a bit tough, it's a well-proportioned stack; the bread is just a little something to soak up the nicely runny yolks with. The plantains had a great exterior crunch and weren't grease-doused or candy-sweet, the way many restaurant plantains can be.
Julian Medina tapped longtime friend and pastry-chef-about-town Pichet Ong for the dessert menu, and it's a stunner—eleven plated desserts, not including daily specials, cookies, or a half-dozen sorbets and as many helados. The glass cases of cakes and cookies on the counter are charming, sure, one more diner touch; but thanks to Ong, they're in all cases far better than standard diner desserts, and in many cases, truly memorable and delicious.
We haven't stopped talking about the Torrejas de Oliva ($6.50) since we first slid a fork into it. It's the most aggressively olive-oily dessert we've ever had, and we mean that in the best of ways; a soft cake doused in olive oil is steam-baked so that it develops a soft, custardlike texture almost like a bread pudding, then caramelized on the top like a creme brulee. When eaten warm, it simply seems like the most delicate, pure expression of olive oil a solid could take, a hot mouthful of the stuff spun into the lightest cake imaginable. With a beautiful crust, a soft mound of condensed milk whipped cream, and a few blackberries, it's a dessert we've already returned for. It is just astoundingly good.
We'd go back, too, for the Carrot Cake with Manchego ($6.50). The cake itself is superbly moist, tender-crumbed, and not too sweet; the cream cheese-sour cream frosting, tangy and smooth; but the sprinkle of Manchego cheese, adding just a little sheep-y funk, takes the cake from a well-done classic to a dessert worth getting excited about. Chocolate Cake with Dulce de Leche Buttercream ($6.50) and Coconut Cake ($6.50) are both solid dessert options, if not quite as memorable. But in diner fashion, one could forsake a plated dessert altogether for one of the milkshakes or floats, with housemade ice creams and sorbets. (Read more about them here.)
It seems at times that there's hardly a chef in New York who hasn't ventured down the "comfort food" road. But Coppelia doesn't feel like a stylistic leap; it doesn't feel like a pedigreed chef deigning to make fried chicken, say. It's simultaneously straightforward and far better than it has to be.
Coppelia is not a Torrisi—it's not really reinventing the Latin diner. But it might be a Rubirosa, a restaurant firmly within the bounds of a cuisine and tradition, but an awful lot better than most others of its ilk; and a 24-hour operation to boot. We're happy to have somewhere for fried cheese and that olive oil cake at 3:00 in the morning; but really, we'd be happy to have them any time of day.