Research has shown (or at least my research has shown) that food and music go together. A restaurant with excellent food but a terrible soundtrack never sits as well as one where the music and food are partners. In the same vein, no matter how strong the ambience and music selection, if an eating establishment has poor food, it is as good as closed. In this column, I look to review what is newer on the scene in food in the Lower Hudson Valley with a constant focus on how things taste and sound.
When we arrived at Lolita Cocina in Byram, Connecticut, our night was already off to a fabulous start. We had just seen Silver Linings Playbook at the AMC Theater in Port Chester, and though not the purpose of this review, I would highly recommend the film. So, with our spirits in good form, we were ready to enjoy some good spirits, and what we hoped would be great food.
Byram is an incredibly small enclave sandwiched between Greenwich proper and Port Chester. The
“business district” (if you’ll call it that), is roughly a block of some interesting retail and a few food establishments. Lolita, which is a project of the CB5 Restaurant Group takes the “standard” Mexican restaurant to a totally different level, focusing just as much on spirit selection and “feel” as food. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as though the majority of Mexican restaurants in this part of metro NYC are independently owned, they all feel like they are part of one big franchise. Lolita does things differently, and excels in a number of areas.
Location: Finding Lolita is a breeze. Close enough to Greenwich and Port Chester, but far enough to not be swallowed up by the other excellent food offerings in those parts of town, Lolita has a nice presence in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood. Parking in Byram can be a challenge. Happily for us, the municipal lot behind the restaurant still had a few spots, so we were able to park, and walk through a nicely designed alley to the restaurant. An outdoor patio complete with a small fire pit was an excellent touch and will likely be jammed as the weather starts to get a little warmer. This evening it held sway with those looking to take a break and grab a smoke. Note: At this time of year, the restaurant entrance is on the side of the building, in the alleyway. We walked around to the front and had a labyrinthine moment as we tried to figure out exactly how to get into the restaurant.
Staff: Staff overall were great. Making a reservation was smooth and we received a confirmation call the day of our reservation. Our hostess was excellent, and service was more than efficient. Seating in Lolita is tight, and we ended up getting to know the staff’s perfume, cologne, and, unfortunately, body odor on a few occasions. Sadly, there just isn’t enough space in this restaurant for this to be avoided. That being said, despite the close quarters, the staff was exceptional at moving food and clearing tables. One thing that struck us was that the staff, in general, took themselves way too seriously. For an establishment that seems to exude fun and relaxation, the overall affect of the staff actually seemed somewhat pretentious.
Music/Ambience: The décor in Lolita isn’t so much Mexican or Latin American as it is dark, trendy, and slightly “clubby.” A bumping bass soundtrack played throughout the meal. The restaurant was loud, and it was tough to hear my wife, and even tougher to make out the musical selection. Most tracks I could hear had a Latin feel with salsa, rhumba, and samba beats married to bass lines you might hear from the newest EDM artist. One song had a great bass line that mingled with what sounded like a Latin American kena flute. It had nice Spanish vocals, and unfortunately ended way too fast. Overall, the music selection fit the restaurant’s trendy vibe, with clubby uptempo tracks that were well-placed, but not particularly memorable. Interestingly, at one point, I could have sworn I heard an old Ace of Base song playing, but I was also three-quarters of the way through my Michelada-style cerveza at that point, so I could be totally off on that one. Lolita has a tremendous bar that runs up an entire side of the restaurant, and meal seating for probably about forty to fifty patrons (make sure you set a reservation).
The crowd is young, and by young I mean quite. We’re in our mid-thirties, and we felt out of place in the restaurant (by age, not attitude). We had late reservations, and though the dining room crowd was petering out, the bar crowd showed no signs of letting up anytime soon. Lavatories were clean and quite humorous. Any establishment that encourages patrons to write on walls with chalk and has a sign above the urinals that says, “We Aim to Please, So Please Aim” clearly is comfortable in its own skin.
Food/Drink: Food and drink are the shining stars at Lolita. With a tequila list and drink menu that goes pages deep, you’ll certainly be able to find something to fit your taste. Beers can be served up Michelada-style which involves salt-rimming the glass and mixing the beer with hot sauce, lime juice, and a few other items. I gave it a try with a Modelo, and loved it. It was like drinking a Bloody Mary that just got in a fight. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. My wife had a well-mixed margarita, as well as a take on a Rum Runner that was slightly less “juicy.”
The food menu wasn’t large, but the offerings were intriguing. Even standard menu items were jazzed up quite a bit, allowing for some new takes on old staples. After ordering food you’re treated to chips and three dips (a chipotle-style salsa, a ranch, and a queso) as well as a grapefruit-infused ice ball, complete with dry ice (for temperature control and effect) and a splash of tequila if you’re so inclined.
We started with a spicy Caesar salad. Like many restaurants are beginning to do these days, the salad came as a number of romaine hearts (rather than chopped), drizzled with a slightly spicier dressing, manchego cheese, and warm croutons (something I first encountered a few weeks ago on a trip to Scottsdale, AZ). The croutons were amazing, and incredibly spicy. While the croutons were delicious, the salad was nothing to write home about. Happily, what followed was much, much, better.
We ordered an “upgrade” on a Mexican restaurant classic, the taco plate, by opting for the brisket tacos. We also ordered the ancho chile quesadillas, partly because we wanted to see if the restaurant could actually do something inventive with chicken quesadillas. We were beyond pleased with the results.
The brisket tacos were excellent, and tasted like a Mexican version of the brisket Mom used to make. The quesadillas went above and beyond expectations, with chile spice and a meaty-sweetness from the combination of bacon and fire-roasted corn. We also ordered a side of fried plaintains. The plaintains were fried to perfection. Crispy enough to work well with the sauces supplied, but still soft enough to remind you that you were eating a plaintain (and not a plaintain chip). In the poorly taken photo above you can see the plaintains on the left, the brisket tacos up top, and the quesadilla stage right.
Dessert looked good, but alas, we could eat no more. Plus (spoiler alert) we had heard that Lolita supplied a nice little dessert with the bill.
What You’ll Pay: Dinner for two, with an appetizer, two meals, a side, and three drinks came to $90.00 with tip. You’ll pay more if you order top shelf tequila, and more if you are really hungry (portion sizes are the right size for a meal. . .while you likely won’t be taking anything home, you certainly won’t be left hungry).
Rating: Gold. Lolita is not to be missed. The vibe shouts “trendy,” and the music selection goes well with the scene. The food and drink are the true shining stars, providing a new take on Latin American fare in a location that is only a few feet off the beaten path. A friendlier wait/bus staff, a little more space in a very crowded restaurant, and even more accessible parking were the critiques we had.
GrubStep ratings are: One Hit Wonder, Bronze, Gold, and Platinum.
by: Fred Ende