Garlic lime chicken, one of many enticements at Lolita.
Lolita ★★ (Very Good)
Want to spark a Mexican revolution? Rave about or deride a Mexican restaurant. At the drop of a sombrero, everybody and his or her mamacita weighs in with fiercely held opinions. “Authentic” versus “new”—both have their charm.
Traditional hole-in-the-wall cantinas continue to abound but nowadays, not only in the U.S. but in Mexico as well, terra nova calls, exciting to explore but probably foolhardy to review, what with that army of experts out there ready to defend their guacamole, gazpacho and even their sangria recipe six ways to Cinco de Mayo.
Sangria is supposed to be red, right? So what’s this pitcher of white liquid on the table? At Lolita, a cool new cocina and tequila bar in Greenwich, it may be Sangria Maria, made with white wine, Absolut Peppar, crabmeat, Clamato juice, fresh orange, lime and seranno chiles—a way-out-wild concoction that appalls some and reassures the blasé that there actually is something new under the Mexican sun.
Lolita is class, flash and action in a romantic, candle-lit setting with a surprise a minute from the get-go. Almost the moment we sit down, a mini-Popocatépetl streaming ribbons of what looks like smoke is set before our wondering eyes. I shouldn’t give it away but this faux volcano is actually a serving of house-made grapefruit and fresh mint granita—a frosty, tart wake-up call to the palate. The “smoke” emanates from a separate surround of dry ice, unnecessary but Lolita goes all out: 136 tequilas on the drink list, all 100 percent agave, aged in oak for up to three years; more than a dozen beers, available “michelada”-style—with salt, fresh lime, Worcestershire and hot sauce; exotic, fruity nonalcoholic treats. Fresh-pressed watermelon juice with mint, anyone?
With sips come chips, thin, crisp, house-made daily and served gratis along with three salsas: tomatillo, salsa verde and chipotle crema—red, green and white, the colors of the Mexican flag—delicious little dollops for shallow dipping. For loading and slurping, order one of the three guacamoles. The “especial,” made with avocado, crabmeat and lobster, is special, indeed.
Unlike many Mexican places, Lolita does not feature combination platters laden with refried beens and rice and smothered with melted cheese. Instead, tacos, quesadillas and tamales, as well as chicken, fish and meat, are served separately, allowing their fresh, bright flavors to shine on their own. If your $15 lobster enchilada looks a bit lonely on the plate, order a $6 side of verde rice with cilantro and Jack cheese. Or black beans perfumed with licorice-scented espazote, in a clay pot, $6.
Iron-pan corn bread, another add-on option, is more like refried polenta, very moist and very sweet. Too sweet for my taste but everybody else is gobbling it up.
We begin with a ceviche tasting, three kinds served in champagne flutes. Each is winsome in its way. Grouper with fresh lime, chili and red onion is pleasantly mild. Shrimp and scallops with tomato, fresh orange, avocado and hot sauce is peppy and familiar. Ahi tuna in coconut milk is sauced with a jolt of jalapeño so powerful the ahi might have been sole or, well, anything. If hot stuff’s your passion, this one’s for you.
With a nod to the gringos, Lolita serves a sort of do-it-yourself Caesar salad—a sheaf of uncut romaine leaves, a slosh of spicy dressing, shavings of Manchego cheese and a handful of corn-bread croutons. Delicious, but impossible to eat without a knife. We ask for one. Going to the trouble pays.
But let nothing deter you from ordering Lolita’s fried oysters. I know, I know, fried foods can be heavy and fresh oysters need no adornment, but try these. They’re dusted with masa (fine corn flour) and red chile and lightly fried to form a pale gold film of crunch. Bite in and a velvety taste of the ocean fills the mouth. These are the best fried oysters I’ve had in years.
Tacos filled with “slow-cooked brisket pulled with a shot of gravy” sound so tempting Margery orders them as a main course. Bad move. The white-corn tortillas are fine but the meat inside is dry and stringy, with some shreds brittle and burned. The general effect, unfortunately, is like chomping on a mouthful of burned matchsticks.
Bistec tampiqueno, an 18-ounce rib-eye, also goes awry. Ordered medium-rare, it arrives well-done. The chili-rubbed pork chop is better, accompanied as it is by oven-baked sweet-potato fries scented with cinnamon.
But the hit of the night is shrimp ajillo. In restaurants I keep ordering shrimp, hoping against hope to get shrimp like these—truly jumbo, perfect in texture and sweet fresh taste, in this instance seared in butter, garlic and chipotle and served with fresh lime, avocado, onions and watercress.
For dessert we choose bunuelos. This is a huge, thin, crispy tortilla dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with cinnamon ice cream and chocolate sauce. Warm chocolate cake is wildly rich, embellished with coffee ice cream, caramel and hot fudge sauces. Quatro leches cake (trust Lolita to up the ante from tres leches) is quite a production—a fluffy white buttermilk cake soaked in coconut milk served with whipped cream, candied almond filling and caramel sauce. If you’re looking for something lighter, there’s a lovely fruit ceviche of chili-spiced mango, watermelon, strawberries and pineapple topped with hibiscus-lime granita.
Lolita is a late-night fiesta for the young at heart. The blast of noise that greeted us when we entered through the bar continues unabated all evening, mellowing into a happy background buzz. By the time we leave, we have absorbed enough positive energy to power a Chevy Volt. Viva Lolita.
230 Mill St., Greenwich (203/813-3555)
Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 to 11, Thursday, Friday and Saturday till 12. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $16, entrées $17 to $29, desserts $8.Lolita, Greenwich