As anyone (of the few, apparently) who saw last year’s movie In the Heights knows, the Washington Heights neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan is a vibrant section with the moniker of Little Dominican Republic. Until now, restaurants featuring the food of that Caribbean island have been modest and few in number, but the dazzling, brand new Jalao NYC ups the ante considerably, for style, sophistication and just plain fun.
This is the first offshoot of a popular Santo Domingo restaurant of the same name, opened in 2016 by Antonio Espaillat and his wife Montserrat (whose company also owns 50 radio and TV stations in the DR), along with operating partner and consulting chef Richard Sandoval and Executive Chef Noemi Guzman. At Jalao NY the chef is Wilmer Chuquillanqui, Peruvian by birth, and Radhames Corporan is the manager.
Located in the new Radio Hotel, Jalao NYC is more glamorous than its Santo Domingo original, with dazzling, rich colors everywhere, Carnival masks, a palm motif, rattan and upholstered booths, beautiful painted tables and a glass wall with a brilliant, leafy Flamboyant Tree painted on it, a brightly lit bar and, outside, when the weather allows, a huge space for cocktails, dining and music. In the dining room, unobtrusive Caribbean music plays softly.
The menu is of good size, but not bewilderingly so, sectioned off into bocaditos (starters), Caribbean-style ceviche, caldos and salads, main dishes and items from the parilla grill. There is, of course, a signature cocktail list—the margarita with passion-fruit juice and hibiscus-rosemary foam is worth trying—and the collection of spirits is impressive. But I wish the modest wine list had more Central and South American bottlings.
We asked the chef to serve us family-style, so we enjoyed a wide range of dishes, starting off with a major hit in the chicharron y casaba ($16) of amazingly crispy pork belly boiled down and the heat turned up to make the skin crunch, with sweet caramelized plantains and a traditional savory, lime-tinged green sauce called wasakaka. Bombones de yuca ($14) are deep-fried pop-in-the-mouth balls of cassava dough filled with cheddar that you dip into a sauce of pineapple and chipotle. Very tasty, juicy goat’s meat-filled croquets ($14) are served with an avocado spuma.
This is rich food in every way, workingman’s fare refined, so dishes may be shared if you plan to order a lot from the menu.
By all means get the sancocho ($12 or $26), a hearty stew chock full of chicken, beef, pork, root vegetables and an ear of corn, served with white rice and avocado. The other item to get for a table of two is the dramatically presented pecao frito ($59), which is a deep-fried red snapper of succulent chunks of the fish, cherry tomatoes and red onion displayed arrayed within the fanned fish’s bones .
As befits a Caribbean restaurant, there are grilled beef dishes done as churrascso. Here they take a 14-ounce ribeye, sear it perfectly, keeping the inside rosy red, and serve it with a spicy chimichurri sauce. At $49 it’s a great deal for a good deal of meat.
Desserts ($13) are as sumptuous as what comes before, and I loved both the cinco leches cake, and the cinnamon-tinged majarete corn custard topped with ice cream.
Jalao NYC is easy enough to get to from any point in Manhattan, the Bronx, Westchester or eastern New Jersey—it’s just north of the George Washington Bridge, just south of Yeshiva University and just west of the Harlem River—so if you’ve never had this kind of food before I would make it a requisite visit for any peripatetic gourmand. For any Dominican in the area Jalao NYC is a terrific emblem of the island’s food culture.
JALAO NY AT RADIO HOTEL
2424 Amsterdam Avenue
Open nightly for dinner.