Owing to my dislike of fast food and to my usual hurried pace when I'm in the Herald Square area, I seldom dine in this part of Manhattan. All that has changed, however, with the recent opening of Leña, a pan-Latin grill that caters to budget-minded gourmets on the go. Their fresh, seasonal, and delicious meals are prepared to order and served quickly.
For those who don't know that Leña (pronounced LEHN·yuh) means "firewood" in Spanish, a rack of logs along the top of the dining room wall should provide a good indication of the restaurant's preferred method of cooking. Should that not suffice, however, a window to the wood-burning grill in the back ought to eliminate any doubt.
Having spent a dozen years working with the likes of Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, Jonathan Waxman, and Andre Balazs, Leña's executive chef-owner Ronny Abenhaim is no stranger to haute cuisine. Noting the ubiquity of Mexican eateries in New York, he sought to offer an alternative that showcases flavors from a broader range of Latin American kitchens. As popular examples, Ronny cites chimichurri (from Argentina) and his signature coconut rice (from the coastal region of his native Colombia). Intended to suit busy schedules, his menu features wraps, salads, and plates that are designed to please discriminating palates. Diners select one of four proteins—chicken, steak, fish, or tofu—to be combined with a choice of sauce, additions, or sides. Ronny is fond of noting that one can dine at Leña for a month without having the same meal twice.
On a recent luncheon, I ordered the Grilled Chicken Plate ($9.50) with an addition of the aforementioned coconut rice, and a side of tostones. Overnight brining and subsequent wood-grilling result in a flavorful bird that delivers the right degree of smokiness. It's hard to imagine a better partner to the savory chicken than the perfectly cooked coconut rice. Every forkful of its subtle sweetness tastes almost like a dessert with the main course.
I was never fond of tostones until I tried the ones here. Ronny prepares them by slicing green (unripe) plantains, then frying, smashing, and soaking them in a saline-garlic solution, and finally frying them again to make them crispy. They're great with pico de gallo, and even better with mojo (pronounced MO·ho), an oil infused with roasted garlic cloves and chili flakes.
Yuca (or cassava) fries are another staple in Latin American cooking. Their mild flavor and starchy texture make them a sine qua non among South Americans. Conceivably, one could order them with the beef option to yield a Leñan variation of steak frites.
The Grilled Chicken Salad ($7.95) consisted of sliced chicken over lettuce, topped with pico de gallo. Though my Comestaccomplice asked about adding guacamole, Ronny suggested she try queso fresco (a crumbly "fresh" cow's milk cheese) instead. He described its slightly acidic flavor as being similar to, but milder than that of feta. The upshot: my dining partner will not order that salad again without it!
While the chicken remains my favorite, the steak and fish are delicious as well. The marinated tofu affords a good vegetarian option, but does not reflect my first choice. Selecting the right sauce(s) to accompany the protein is, of course, a matter of taste. Nevertheless, certain pairings are particularly successful. To wit, chimichurri (a mixture of cilantro, parsley, garlic, chili flakes, olive oil, and rice vinegar) goes especially well with skirt steak, and brown butter partners very nicely with tilapia. Although pico de gallo is considered de rigueur with chicken, I prefer Leña's smoky chili pepper sauce—a fiery blend of charred peppers and tomatoes—to accompany my pollo. The pickled onions, also considered to be a sauce, are excellent as well. On a future visit, I'd like to try the smoky domestic blue cheese dressing with my steak.
The fresh-squeezed juices are delicious and thirst-quenching. We'd requested the least sweet, and while lemonade fit the bill, we weren't so sure about the passion fruit. But once again, it was a winner. Its rich taste affords hints of sweetness initially, but delivers a refreshingly tart and slightly earthy finish. Like the passion fruit, the tamarind is pleasingly tart as well. Its wealth of antioxidants and other healthful properties—such as those that promote cardiac and digestive wellness—make it a top choice.
To finish on a sweet note, a confection that has many variants in the Americas: alfajor (pronounced ull·fuh·HORR). Based on the Argentinean variety, Leña's is a cookie sandwich in which two biscuits are joined together by a dulce de leche center, and coated with coconut flakes along the edge. With the sweetness of a fig, it's pleasant without being cloying. It's a sweet way to end any meal.
Leña provides a new, fresh option for breakfast and lunch in the Herald Square area. The crowds say it all: offer people a delicious variety of fresh and wholesome food at bargain prices, serve it in a friendly and speedy manner, and customers will beat a path to your door.
Leña Latin Grill
34 West 35th Street (between Fifth & Sixth Avs),
Open Monday through Saturday, 7:00 A.M. till 5:00 P.M.
By train: B,D,F,M (IND),N,Q,R (BMT) to 34 St-Herald Sq
(exit IND at SE corner 35th St)
By bus: M4, M5, Q32