Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New York City's Lena Latin Grill Serves Up High Quality, Affordable, Fast-Food

Lena Latin Grill

Like the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, one steps off 35th Street into Lena’s Latin Grill restaurant and enters into a mirror world of seeming opposites. 
Nothing is quite what it seems.   
This is a fast food eat in/take out/delivery restaurant; however all the food ingredients are sourced fresh-from-the-farm – Pasture to Plate - and from local greenmarkets.
The cuisine boasts Latin, but there is nary an enchilada or a burrito in sight

How can all this be??

There are freestanding refrigerators filled with Lena-labeled water and tempting home made juices.  The exotic-sounding fruit flavors: lulo, tamarind, mango guanabana, cantaloupe, blackberry, watermelon, lemonade and herbal tea are fresh-squeezed -- every day!  

The restaurant buzzes and hums with a purposeful, lunchtime working-class clientele. 

Breakfast is served daily too. Lena’s customers found themselves part of such a culinary awakening – and are so devoted to its one-two punch of innovative food offerings and breakthrough operations, the restaurant is now also open for dinner too. 

Shhh. Don’t tell McDonalds. The customers at Lena are all enjoying fresh, good-for-you, grilled food!

The genius behind this break-through dining concept is chef and owner, Ronny Abenhaim. 
Chef Ronny’s award-winning culinary pedigree includes extensive fine dining, haute-cuisine episodes with the great top chef, Mario Batali and hospitality legend Andre Balazs’s Miami Standard Hotel and his Long Island Sunset Beach resort.  Ronny learned the brilliance of “how to keep it simple” from Chef Mario.  Mario would often say, “What are the probabilities of a mass audience liking 13 ingredients?”  Simple flavor is best.  With upwards of 1,000 dining covers on a typical 4th of July weekend at Sunset Beach, Ronny learned how to manage volume from Balazs.

Chef Ronny is a hands-on chef and manager.  Diners catch a glimpse of the wiry, intense chef in the see-through grill kitchen as well as ringing up customers in the fast-moving order line.  
Chef Ronny is the kind of passionate chef that has years of experience, vast knowledge of food and farming and homegrown pride, all rolled together - like one of his stellar wrap sandwiches.

“The concept was to do a high-end restaurant style menu in terms of quality, using fresh, seasonal ingredients; molded into a fast-food and service template to make the meals quick and affordable,” explains chef Ronny.   “And to serve up Latin-infused, flavor drenched dishes that would turn the notion of Latin-menu-is-Mexican on its head.
No easy task.  However, Lena succeeds brilliantly.  

Chef Ronny's distinctive cuisine stems from his South American roots.  He moved to the United States when he was 13 years old from Columbia. 
He grew up with fresh vegetables and fruits and grilling food to wring the most succulent, savory taste. 
Ronny explains he uses a mix of applewood, ash, and maple split wood to fire up a sweet, heady grill.  Even the wood is sourced locally – from Brooklyn’s The Woodman. 

So important is the wood grilling to the restaurant’s food integrity, Ronny named the restaurant Lena – which means "firewood" in Spanish.  In homage to nature’s purest “stove,” split wood serve as a sort of rough-hewn cornice design detail, lining the top perimeter of the restaurant’s narrow space.

“Using direct heat to cook is healthier,” says Ronny.  “Grilling the food sucks out the fat and retains the protein.” Lena grills all its Plate entrees and its vegetable Additions. 

The food ingredients are sourced locally too.  Ronny’s farm-fresh vegetables and fruits come from a number of green, organic growers including Chelsea Market, the Greenmarket in Union Square, Baldor Specialty Foods or Ipex.  The food itself starts off with so much natural flavor Chef Ronny claims “We don’t need to do too much to it in order to serve pure, simple, flavorful dishes.”

OK, here’ s the skinny on the menu:
Three different styled entrees: Wrap, Salad and Plate.
The Wrap and Salad come with one sauce and two Additions or side orders.

There are 12 different kinds of sauces to choose from – all fresh-made with savory ingredients ranging from green tomatillos (which is excellent) to the jalapeno pepper to avocado.  

The Plate comes with one sauce and two Additions or sides, such as roasted sweet potatoes. 
Sorry, no New York-styled mixing and matching or substitutions when it comes to ordering, a la “I’ll have the BLT and hold the bacon!” 
Here, Lena does the formidable task of “culinary accessorizing” for its guests  -- to perfection. They make it all so easy to eat good food!

Don’t forget to enjoy a Lena alfajor cookie confection:  a South American street food version of a Linzer torte cookie sandwich filled with a sweet, caramel dulce de leche.  Luscious.  

Chef Ronny’s passion for fresh, quality ingredients, grilling and less-is-best philosophy when it comes to manipulating the food is based on his own preference for eating healthy (he and Michelle Obama would see eye to eye on diet and health).  And is backed up by his research that he is only too happy to share.  Available as a print out and on the Lena web site and soon to be on the wall for customers in line to order to read, are Chef’s Seven Latin Power Foods and their benefits.
The succulent seven are:  tomatillos, garbanzo beans, avocado, garlic, cinnamon, chiles and cilantro.

According to Ronny’s research, “the hot Latin diet increases fat burning by 25 percent in addition to decreasing hunger.”  It is true that eating good food satiates more than the palate. The body is not tricked by added sugars or oils. In fact, he goes on to report the hot Latin diet increases the variety and flavor while improving the balance of fats consumed.  In addition to the Power Foods, the Latin food menu emphasizes fish, olive oil and nuts, adding lots of spice to the meals.

Lena's flavorful food sure gets around town: about 80% of the restaurant’s lunch business is take out.  

Breakfast favorites are coffee, fresh fruit juices and pastry.

Chef Ronny and his game-changing Lena Latin Grill is just the beginning. He hopes to open another Lena Latin Grill for a Wall Street clientele.  And then on to a franchise. “It’s what I love to do,” he says.  He commented how he is energized by the needs of his customers. 

How Do I Love Lena?  Let me Count the Ways.
When asked, a well-heeled customer, Jacqui Booker said she is such a fan of Lena Latin Grill she asked chef Ronny to prepare her Thanksgiving turkey.  “The food at Lena is so well-cooked, so authentic and yet so very simple that she comes to Lena more often than she can count.  "I've lost track of how many days a week I eat here," Booker says about her favorite New York city restaurant.

Lena customers are to be forgiven for their cult-like devotion to this moderately priced, foodie haven.

So there may be no need for the Lena Latin Grill Loyalty Card but there it is. “Ten Is On Us.” 
After an even 10 meals, Lena provides $10 on the house.

The only things I'd change is to have a waitress tell Lena newbies, like me and my cousin, that diners need to step up and order directly from the menu at the register, a la McDonalds or its fast-food distant relations.  Chef Ronny says they are already planning to add this instruction signage to the wall menus. 
The Seven Latin Power Food and their benefits will also be added to the wall menus.  So you can feel even better about what you are about to order.  Delicious AND Healthy. 

Lena Latin Grill
34 West 25th Street (5th & 6th)
phone: 646 274 1995

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