Thursday, March 3, 2016

Nineteen61, Lakeland, FL

There’s a new “cool kid” in town – or more accurately, it’s a “spicy kid” just outside of town. Nineteen61, the brainchild of chef/owner Marcos Fernandez and named for the year his parents fled Cuba, is the hottest ticket in Lakeland’s burgeoning restaurant scene right now.

Latin cuisine is my favorite, so it’s possible that my review will be a little biased. I visited once for lunch and once for dinner, and left feeling starry-eyed and fat on both occasions. The venue is small and casually elegant, with a charming outdoor dining area under a pergola strung with twinkling lights and surrounded by lush landscaping. If you don’t have reservations (which can be hard to get on weekend nights) your only option may be al fresco. It’s tough to be thrown into the briar patch like that.

The restaurant is not inexpensive, nor should it be considering the quality of the cuisine. Appetizers range in price from $7 for serrano ham croquetas to $27 for a charcuterie platter piled with melt-on-the-tongue, jamón ibérico, chorizo, assorted Spanish cheeses and olives. Entrees will set you back anywhere from $13 for the Hamburguesa to $39 for Paella Mariscos. There’s also free-range Guinea hog on the menu (which wasn’t available on either of my trips) locally sourced from Florida’s own Mt. Citra Farm. Not to be confused with Guinea pig - don’t even go there.

Charcuterie at Nineteen61 bears a remarkable similarity to the platters UD and I tried in Barcelona.

Starters sampled included empanadas with picadillo filling, a dusting of powdered sugar and spicy pepper aoli for dipping. Petite and flaky, they had an addictive quality that made us toy with the idea of placing a second order. 

My favorite, however, had to be the Pato – moist duck confit served with mini buttermilk biscuits, mascarpone, and sweet and spicy rocoto jam.

It's a rare day when I order a hamburger in a sit-down restaurant, but I couldn't resist it here. The deal of the century, the hamburguesa is a fat, juicy beef patty embellished with prosciutto, manchego cheese and Romesco (a Catalan roasted red pepper and almond spread) ketchup served on house made, toasted ciabatta. The accompanying yucca chips failed to thrill, but my expectations weren’t high to begin with. Besides, I couldn’t even begin to wrangle this Gaudi-esque burger masterpiece and had to take half of it home.

Ropa vieja was the best I've ever tasted, having a depth of flavor and tenderness that can only be derived from long, slow braising with pungent veggies and spices. Easily separating into tender ribbons, it was served with creamy, coarsely-ground polenta and fried plantains.

Desserts are thoughtful and elegantly presented. Deconstructed dishes make some purists roll their eyes, and I agree that they can be overly contrived at times. But the Key lime pie and coconut, with its mounds of tangy custard spiked with shards of house-made graham cracker cookie, made it all the better to wallow in. 

Likewise, my intensely-flavored, individual guava cheesecake presented atop a brushstroke of guava glacé was worth the extra elliptical penance. 

I don’t find crema Catalana to be a particularly sexy sweet finish, but my better half bestowed kudos on Nineteen61’s version, commenting on the uniqueness of its intensely cinnamon-y, shattering sugar crust and chocolate ganache accompaniment. 

This is a worthy date-night destination for residents of Polk County, East Hillsborough and others who don’t mind driving for a unique fine dining experience. Chef Fernandez is readily apparent and bustles about the restaurant, checking on each individual table to ensure that his offerings are meeting expectations. A must-try for Latin food junkies.

Nineteen61 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

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