Smoke & Mirrors
Does Byram’s Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar live up to its flashy vibe?
This is one of those restaurants at which the designers had a field day. Imagine a hidden, outdoor seating area tucked in the back of a hip Byram, Connecticut, spot, where silent black-and-white snippets of spaghetti westerns flicker against one wall. (The clips feature a lot of flashing black eyes and skimpy dresses: it’s a great prelude to Lolita’s sexy, Mexi-Gothic interior.) Last February, this patio also featured an ice bar complete with an integral drinks “luge”: mid-winter crowds could watch their tequilas zig-zag down an ice chute while warmed by overarching heat lamps.
(Above): Lolita’s casually fun, but dark, interior. (Below): The carne asada comes courtesy of Chef Reyes, previously of NYC’s El Teddy’s.
Inside, Lolita’s diners are greeted by a throbbing playlist, which is carefully geared to its 30- to 50-something crowd (expect heavy Zeppelin to yield to Echo and the Bunnyman). Its bi-level space is lit by churchy, red votive candles, and, though their flickering light is flattering, we saw lots of diners reading menus by the glow of their cellphones. As we took in the glimmering scene, all wrought-iron chancels and smoky mirrors, down dropped a tartly tasty amuse bouche of grapefruit and mint granita. Described to us as “like a Sno-Cone”—I thought it was more frozen margarita—it arrived nested in a bowl of dry ice with wooden Italian ice paddles. As a witch’s brew of smoke poured across the tabletop and down to our laps, we nodded our assent for the granita to get lashed with a fragrant tequila. By that point, we were grinning like idiots, and I thought, “Bingo!”
It’s hard not to love Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar, a restaurant whose sense of fun outweighs its flaws. A trio of ceviches (grouper in fresh lime and Serrano chili; shrimp and scallops in tomato, fresh orange; and ahi tuna in coconut and lime) arrived attractively—and traditionall—plated in heaped popcorn. Sadly, the ceviches themselves were sugary and over-marinated: a buzz-kill after the fabulous buildup. However, we appreciated Lolita’s vast tequila menu, which is arranged by age and taste profile, while a wonderful michelada of Modelo Negro beer, Worcestershire, and Lolita hot sauce wins our all-time favorite “beer-tail” award. On the plate, starters of lobster enchiladas were delicious, slicked in a heady sauce of coffee, chocolate, sesame, and orange, but crispy masa-dredged oysters were bland, and landed heavily and thickly mushy.
Sugar flies around Lolita Cocina, sometimes in unwelcome ways. Generous tequila pours are garnished with orange sections, capped by a melted, red-sugar glaze, which looks fabulous on the table but gives these serious drinks a kiddie spin. We found the sweetness in an adobo chicken tamale starter cloying—especially in a dense, starchy dish of masa, black-bean sauce, and roasted garlic cream. And sugar peeked out again in a grilled salmon with coconut-lime broth, tasting a little like melted coconut candy. Sweetness soaked an otherwise delicious cornbread side, making it taste like a bread-pudding dessert, while it also lurked in a corn tamale lying beneath seared squares of tuna with tart tomatillo salsa.
Lolita’s bar may be serious, but so is its chef, Juan Manuel Reyes. He’s cooked at El Teddy’s in New York City, and his food is influenced by cosmopolitan trends. I tasted hipster-packed, downtown Mercadito in a trio of tacos, where crisp pork shreds had an almost deep-fried texture: sadly, one flour tortilla was sodden and impossible to lift. Reyes’s plating is complex and can sometimes get overwrought—for example, that sweet chicken tamale. There, a base of masa joined ruby onions, slow-cooked black-bean sauce and roasted garlic crema; the chicken was lost in the murk. Simple is often better, as in Lolita’s vast caballero rib eye (served with poblano rajas and roasted cilantro potatoes).
Desserts are multi-media and dramatic. Look for a “quattro leches” cake that one-ups the usual tres. Its cheesy filling was chock full of trendy salt, which made it weirdly briny. Better was a Mexican hot pot, or fruits and puff pastry twist “churros” served with chocolate sauce. The last arrived arranged around a tiny fondue pot, set over a votive candle (eat it quick; the votive will boil the chocolate and turn it bitter). Best was the orgiastic “Bananarama,” described as “three crisp-fried banana/caramel cheesecake burritos, with deep chocolate ice cream,
butterscotch sauce, and pecan brittle.” Understandably, we shared a moment of silence when the phenomenon landed.
Okay, so here’s the tally: a killer first impression with some lost ground. However, the end of the Lolita dining experience exemplifies the ultimate in winning goodbye kiss. Checks are dropped with temporary tattoos—complete with jailhouse lettering and a black-limned heart—while waiters swing by with clouds of green apple cotton candy scattered with fizzy red Pop Rocks. Who can stay mad at these guys?
Lolita Cocina &Tequila Bar ★★ 1/2
230 Mill St., Greenwich, CT
Hours: dinner Sun to Thurs 5 pm–12 am, Fri and Sat 5 pm–2 am
Appetizers: $9-$16; entrées: $17-$29; desserts: $10-$14.
★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good