Note: Sueños closed in March 2014.
We don’t make a habit of following Frank Bruni around the city, but he caught our attention last week when he recommended Sueños, chef Sue Torres’s modern Mexican restaurant in West Chelsea. Unusually for us, we didn’t have other plans, and Sueños was available.
Torres moved up the NYC restaurant ladder, working at La Grenouille, “21”, and Arizona 206 (among many others) before becoming head chef at the Rocking Horse Café at the tender age of 23. In 2003, she moved to Sueños, where she is both chef and owner. In the Times, William Grimes awarded one star. Aside from a brief fling with Los Dados in the Meatpacking District in late 2007, Torres has kept her focus on Sueños, and that’s probably a good thing.
The space is delightful, making the best of an oddly shaped layout. To get in, you pass over a gang plank that passes between two buildings. Initially, you’re in an ample bar area, where the margaritas are wonderful.
There are two dining rooms, where the exposed brick is painted in bold, saturated colors. They wrap around a courtyard decorated with a fountain and scrub brush. It allows natural light into a space that would otherwise seem claustrophobic. We were in the smaller of the two rooms, a glass-enclosed porch that appears to have been manufactured out of the gap between two buildings.
We had no trouble getting a reservation the day of our visit, but the restaurant was mostly full. The server said that Frank Bruni’s blog post was certainly helpful, but that they’d been doing well anyway. (He also said that Bruni was not recognized on any of his visits.)
The inexpensive menu has appetizers priced from $6–10, entrées $17–25, and side dishes $5. A five-course tasting menu is $50. It’s a concise document that fits on just one page.
Every table gets home-made bean dip with corn bread (above), which is a wonderful way to start a meal.
Both the Shrimp Stack ($10; above left) and the Chicken Chilaquiles ($10; above right) featured the bright, forward flavors and the balanced seasoning that Torres is known for.
Pork Tacos with warm apples ($18; above left) and Hanger Steak Tacos with queso and black beans ($19; above right) showed that same excellent sense of balance, but neither one could be eaten as intended. The pork tacos were too messy and too hot to pick up, while the steak tacos quickly leaked through to the outside of the soft tortilla shell.
The wine list had plenty of options in the right price range. We settled on a $29 Spanish red that was just fine, though I haven’t noted what it was. Service was smooth and unobtrusive. We lingered both at the bar and at the table without ever feeling rushed.
Non-formulaic Mexican food is hard to find in the city. Based on the sample we had, I get the feeling that the farther you stray from Mexican classics, the more interesting Chef Torres’s food becomes.
Sueños (311 W. 17th Street, west of Eighth Avenue, Chelsea)