My first thought: a hundred reasons and more than a dozen years would prevent me from reviewing Monica’s Nueva Cocina & Mi Lounge. I have known the owner, Monica Greene, since before I became a restaurant critic. Despite my closet full of disguises, I figured there was no way I could sneak in without being recognized.
One late-September morning, though, I called Greene to ask her how the restaurant was doing. She outlined many of the changes she went through during the year it took to open. Her original plan for the space was to create a 70-seat, chef-driven, regional Mexican restaurant called Tajin. At the time, Greene was itching to get back in the kitchen and cook the food she grew up eating. She chose the name to honor Mexican history. At the El Tajin ruins near Veracruz, archaeologists uncovered relics from the Olmec people, the first major civilization in Mexico.
After neighboring restaurant Sushi Axiom closed, Greene changed her concept. She incorporated that space and geared her food to a more mainstream audience. She doubled the original fl oor plan to 7,600 square feet that include two dining rooms, two bars, room for 200 guests, and the sushi bar left by Sushi Axiom. She changed the menu from fried grasshoppers, venison carpaccio, frog legs, and no chips and salsa to “real Mexican food with a respect for Tex-Mex.” Greene hired chef Hector Hernandez from Alma and Hibiscus, and she put herself in the front of the house.
Near the end of our chat, Greene said something that I now wish she hadn’t. She told me she was leaving forNew York in a couple of days and, after that, she was taking a vacation inTurkey. I decided to write the review. I could eat anonymously, and, if it came to that, I figured our friendship could survive a negative review.