Sometime around 1994, Market Café opened on a hardscrabble stretch of 9th Avenue south of the Port Authority, when those seedy blocks were still known for their Latin meat markets and gender-bending sex workers. The premises seemed far older, as if it had once been a diner or soda fountain, with composite-stone floors, spaceship light fixtures, and twirling stools along a white-tiled counter. In those days it had a reputation for being the only decent place to eat within walking distance of the Javits Center. Still, despite an eclectic French and Italian menu (with some surprise Swedish twists thrown in around Christmastime), the food was hit or miss, and one was well advised to stick with the steak frites.
The last chef of Market Café, Giovanni Morales, decided to try to keep the declining institution alive with a different formula. Morales named the new version Oovah and adopted the concept of a wine bar specializing in 100 percent gluten-free food, with a small-dish format and a Latin theme.
Opening New Year’s Eve, 2014, the over-the-top décor had an improvised feel: You stepped through a blue neon frame into the restaurant to find yourself standing between a double row of potted evergreens. Up ahead, grape vines painted a ghoulish white hung in profusion from the ceiling; a scrim at the rear featured a time-lapse skyline of the city that rippled when anyone came in the front door. Spooky! The name "Oovah" occasioned some confusion, too: along with the odd lighting and décor — which still featured gleaming white tiles — it suggested an intergalactic fertility clinic.
So, by early summer, the place underwent an identity change. The gluten-free pretense was mostly dropped and the name altered to the cutesier Ooviña. Now publicity material and the spiel of the waiters imply that the food is largely Guatemalan, Morales’ country of origin.
Now there's a concept I can get behind: a wine bar with a Guatemalan theme. Unfortunately, while most of the food seems nominally Latin American, few of the dishes are identifiably Guatemalan. And they tend to be the best things on the menu.
Pollo guisado ($15), a tart and terrific chicken soup, sports a light tomatillo broth. A wealth of creamy, carby hominy lurks in the depths. Carne guisada ($15) might be its dark-haired fraternal twin, a beef stew with a lacing of cabernet sauvignon, a French flourish that the dish could well do without. The long-stewed tenderness of the beef cubes and the swollen rice at the bottom of the bowl are the real attractions here.
The most purely Guatemalan dish is classified as a dessert: rellenitos colcocha ($12), fried ripe plantains filled with black-bean puree.
On a couple of occasions, the kitchen was out of pork tamales, another Guatemalan classic. Instead, a friend and I opted for arroz con chorizo, here spectacularly turned out with homemade jalapeño sausage and a soupçon of saffron. While one could have hoped for these Guatemalan dishes to be a bit earthier, one supposes that you don’t want the food to be too funky in any place that calls itself a wine bar. Anyway, the most purely Guatemalan dish is classified as a dessert: rellenitos colcocha ($12), fried ripe plantains filled with black-bean puree. Consider ordering it as an app, because the effect is more savory than sweet.
The wine list runs to 50 bottles (18 available by the glass, at $9 to $25 each), and is dramatically worldwide in scope. Pick one of its quirkier white, pink, or red varietals and you can’t go wrong. One night it was a glass of Garzon sauvignon blanc from Uruguay ($15), a crisp white with a fruity dryness, a perfect match for a shrimp ajillo that beds the pink crustaceans on a coarse garlic puree; on another occasion a sparkling Gruet Rose from New Mexico ($15) was low-key enough to let the delicacy of grilled baby calamari rings shine.
Other wines come from such diverse places as Israel, the Finger Lakes, Spain’s Basque country, Washington State, South Africa, Australia, and Chile. There are few bargains on the list, though at seven ounces per glass (I brought a measuring cup with me one evening), the pours are generous.
The balance of the menu is mostly Latin influenced, and the results vary. The cassava gnocchi ($13) in bacon gravy are quite wonderful; it’s a dish sometimes seen in Peruvian bistros. The extensive taco list is mainly forgettable, while the kale salad, while eminently edible, has no connection with anything else on the menu. One suspects it was mandated by the Food Police. Still, if you’re tired of the usual charcuterie and antipasti menus of many wine bars, or their slavishly French and Italian wine programs, then Ooviña is a bright spot upon the Hell’s Kitchen horizon.
Cost: Dinner for two, including four dishes, two glasses of wine, and tax but not tip, $100.
Sample dishes: Cassava gnocchi, shrimp ajillo, rellenitos colocha, pollo guisado, kale salad.
What to drink: In addition to an adventuresome wine list consisting of 50 bottles from five continents, two varieties of sangria are offered. Laced with rum and filled with fresh fruit, the white is especially good.
Bonus tip: In search of a one-dish meal? Pick the pollo guisado or carne guisada, and request some (glutinous) bread to go with it.