Friday, October 19, 2012

Lena: a review

Last night I had the privilege to attend a press event at Lena. I was really impressed. Origionally when I had heard Cafe Habana was turning into Lena, I was a little disappointed. I really liked their areapas. Nevertheless, I had heard good things from friends who had gone to Lena and I was excited to give it a try. In short: it was awesome, every aspect was better than I could have hoped. Here's a play by play:

The Food: Here I have to be clear that I am a little biased. I studied abroad in Ecuador when I was an undergrad. Believe it or not, it's pretty hard to find any Ecuadorian food here. I hadn't really done much prep work before coming to the press event, so I was pleasantly surprised when I spotted several Ecuadorian dishes on it. Turns out, Gabriel Vera, Lena's Executive Chef, is Ecuadorian. We had a good talk about Ecuador, and how hard it is to find good churrasco here. My favorite items from the menu were:

Churrasco--a thin grilled skirt steak with a fried egg. Just like mi (host) madre made.

Charcuterie platter--great ham, Manchego cheese, grilled bread and orange marmalade with toasted macadamia nuts. How come I have never had toasted macadamia nuts in marmalade before? It's freaking delicious.

Empanadas--with mango chutney, roast beet puree and arugula. All of the dishes did a great job incorporating fresh herbs and greens.

Flan--Most of the flan I have eaten has been pretty "meh." This is not one of those flans, it was dense and rich.

My only criticism with the menu was the lack of llapingachos, an Ecuadorian dish made of fried mashed potato panckaes stuffed with cheese served with a fried egg and peanut sauce. Chef Gabriel, if you are reading this, maybe llapingachos could be a special some time? Just think about it.

UPDATE: I totally missed it when I scanned the lunch menu, but Lena most definitely has "Spanish Yapingacho" on the lunch menu. It sounds delicious.

The Drinks: The cocktails at Lena are wonderful. I started off with a Vaquero: Bulleit 95 rye, fresh mint, lemon juice, orange honey syrup, whiskey cube. It was excellent, mixing the citrus flavors really well with the rye and just enough honey. My accomplice had a Machu Picchu, blackberry brandy, fresh lime, egg white, syrup and bitters with ice spheres. Blackberry and fresh lime = delicious. For our second drinks we ordered The Long Walk to Ecuador and a Signature Mojito, respectively. The Long Walk to Ecaudor was good--Knob Creek bourbon, Campari, cherry liqueur, Falernum liqueur, and fresh muddled blackberries with a whiskey cube--but was a little on the sweet side. The Signature Mojito was possibly the best mojito I have had. Lots of fresh lime and not too sweet.

The Details: Lena has done a great job renovating the former Parthenon building. The upstairs is very mid-century modern: bubble lamps, tulip chairs, gentle curves, off white, and simple shapes. When I initially read the descriptions of Lena, I thought it sounded a little pretentious, but not that I have visited, I'm changing my tune: the place looks and feels awesome. On top of that, the people that work there were super nice and really sharp too. Our server, our bartender, Chef Gabriel and owner Steve all made us feel at home. The guys from Mission Management have done a great job once again.

Habana is in the basement of Lena and partially under the sidewalk of Liberty and Main. The space is really amazing. It's dark and intimate and has an astonishingly tall ceiling. They have also carved out some more private seating areas under the vaulted sidewalk. Pretty awesome.

So bottom line: Lena has great food, great drinks and a great atmosphere. It's not cheap but it's not too expensive either; dinners range form $18 to $34 and lunches are $8 - $12. It's a great place to go for fancy date night, or when someones parents come into town and want to go somewhere nice. While the "Latin American Cuisine" label might turn off folks with unadventurous palates, you should know that Ecuador is basically a meat and potatoes kind of country with a lot of good seafood and tropical sensibilities. Anyone can find something great on the menu at Lena.


  1. Looks like someone's parents will be in town next time I come to visit.

  2. A pretty extensive set of photos was uploaded today of the two restaurants:

    A very impressive redesign. I worked at the Parthenon in high school and I can't underscore enough how much work they put into that basement. The Parthenon used it only for storage, and only the back half at that – the rest was completely unfinished and very dingy from its original days as the place where coal was loaded from the street. That’s what the vaulted ceiling alcoves under the Liberty St. sidewalk were originally used for. In the Parthenon’s days they were pretty spooky rooms to stumble upon when sent downstairs to retrieve something!

  3. @Phil, Steve was astounded that the Parthenon just used the basement for storage considering how much space costs downtown.

  4. Sir: If you get a press invite to the opening to MexiMani I will fly back and go with you.

  5. This review completely contradicts most reviews and my own experience. While Lena is beatifully laid out it is very noisy upstairs. The food was not nearly as good as the old Cafe Habana restaurant on Washington and prices are extremely high for the portions served. Sorry to say this as I was also very excited to go to Lena many times hoping it was equal or better than Cafe Habana.