Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney are still a couple of weeks away from opening the re-vamp of their first restaurant, modern Mexican Lolita, but the place already has polish to spare and we were lucky to get an early glimpse.
Safran and Turney have transformed Lolita–once a narrow, rectangular, rosy-hued room with an open kitchen smushed in to the middle of the space–to a layout that feels much more open. While it is, of course, still narrow, the kitchen and bar now run along one side of the room, creating ample bar seating that affords a primo view of cocktails being shaken, tortillas being rolled (on a Mexican machine complete with menacing safety illustrations), and meat sizzling shawarma-style on a vertical roaster.
The space is broody and dark, not unlike their other restaurants Barbuzzo or Jamonera, with rough wood textures and pops of brightness from sunny yellow bar stools and bright, black and white chevrons, a motif that crops up painted along the bar and also on the paper straws that make their way into cocktails.
Though Lolita’s B.Y.O.T. (bring your own tequila) days are but happy memories, those cocktails are just as charming as you thought you were that time you and your friend brought, and finished, a bottle of Cuervo.
Naturally, there are margaritas. The Green Garden (tequila and agave topped off with a bright green juice blend) actually makes drinking green juice appealing. The Paloma Violeta is a pint-sized (no, really, it’s served in a pint glass) punch of Espolon, grapefruit, agave, and lime, topped with a scoop of prickly pear sorbet. Bright green and intriguingly cool, yet spicy, the Cucumber Jalapeño margarita, is going to be perfect once we shift from complaining about the cold to complaining about the heat. Not a tequila drinker? Try a Tamarind Sour made with Bulleit and fresh orange juice.
Revisiting Lolita’s food is just as refreshing. Don’t miss juicy shrimp and Maryland crab campechana with charred pineapple, red onion, and plantain chips or the smoked chicken and duck fat tamales topped with intriguing peanut mole and a shower of radish. From the trompa, Turney sliced bits of pork shoulder, belly and cheek, slightly charred and deeply caramelized, to go into tacos with fermented rhubarb and fresh cilantro. But for me, nothing tasted so clearly of where Lolita was when she opened, and where she’s headed now, as a sheet of glossy red tuna (so popular on menus back in 2004 when Lolita made her debut) on a chip of fried taro, topped with chipotle mayo, avocado, and crispy shallots.
Welcome back, Lolita, we missed you.