Only a few restaurants each season are lucky enough to arrive on a tidal wave of hype. Baby Brasa in the West Village is one of them, even though it’s the second branch of a cafe that opened a year ago on the Lower East Side. The hype is owing to chef Franco Noriega: In addition to being a trained chef, he’s a professional underpants model, and the media love to run bare-chested pictures of him.
When Baby Brasa moved into the former Empire Szechuan space on Seventh Avenue South, it was already a striking piece of architectural kitsch. In fact, the two-story structure might be mistaken for a 60s airport terminal in a small city. The façade is strikingly white, with a slogan splashed on an adjacent wall, “I Feel You Baby.” (A neon “Baby, Baby, Baby” glows in the Lower East Side restaurant, echoing Britney Spears.)
A few steps up from the street, the bi-level main floor has been outfitted with black marble tables and dark bentwood chairs, with green palm fronds painted on yellow walls. As I entered for a first look, Noriega himself stood behind the bar shaking a cocktail — not in chef’s whites but in fatigue pants and a t-shirt.
The room was nearly full, but we quickly got a four-top. The crowd seemed oddly glum, and when a friend looked around, she noted that nobody had any food. Indeed, food and cocktails were hard to come by, with a beleaguered kitchen and Noriega the only bartender. The staff had trouble taking orders, too, and the wait for food was 40 minutes. Even then, wrong dishes arrived at the table.
The delay was especially disturbing because the menu is straightforward, in keeping with its predecessor on the Lower East Side. Despite the celebrity chef and lavish premises, the place is really a Peruvian chicken joint like the ones ubiquitous in Queens, concentrating on rotisserie chickens, chicken sandwiches, and simple salads, starters, and sides.
The chickens are described as organic and Amish. Does that mean they went to church? No, Amish is a cynical marketing label that means next to nothing. But the chickens are not bad, tender and lightly browned, though not crisp skinned or salted enough. Missing is the soy-based spice paste deliciously found on most Peruvian chickens, said to be the result of Chinese culinary influences in Peru.
At $7 (dark) or $8 (light) for a quarter chicken, or $13 for a half, the birds are on the small side. A quarter grilled chicken is also available for $11, unadorned save for a tart green dipping sauce. If you want to fill up, you’re going to need extra dishes.
Make sure you ask for the spicy yellow Huancaina dipping sauce, named for a historic town in the Andes to accompany the crisp yuca fries ($6). The fried yuca cheese balls are also good, and may remind you of Brazilian pao de queijo. But the big quinoa salad ($15) is almost all arugula and little grain, while the cheese-stuffed fried wontons are frankly revolting.
We tried the signature Baby Brasa sandwich ($14), which featured a slender quantity of chicken on potato bread, with the rest of the stacked-high sandwich taken up with fried potato sticks awash in mayo. This is a poverty sandwich at a luxury price. It makes the assertion — promulgated by the chef and repeated by the media — that the food here is healthy a laughable one.
The mixed drinks are tasty and boozy. The standard cocktail of Peru is the pisco sour, well rendered and appropriately foamy, with some red drops of bitters on top. The price of $13 is typical for restaurants in this category. Reduced to $9, the drink becomes a good deal at happy hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily).
Baby Brasa is a classic case of the problems of scaling a restaurant from a small carryout to a large, semi-luxe establishment. Producing a few chickens an hour is not the same as turning out dozens, and hiring and training a staff in a larger restaurant can take weeks or even months of hard work. Here’s hoping Baby Brasa West will evolve into something much better, because Manhattan can use more Peruvian chickens.