Thanks to a decent showing of arepa joints in NYC, you might think you know Venezuelan cuisine, but that’s where you’d be wrong; there’s a whole world to discover beyond street food, and Casa Ora has set out to showcase that through an arsenal of elevated dishes. I popped by the gorgeous, hand-built space earlier this month to find out more about the vision Chef Luis Herrera (previously Sous Chef at Cosme and Alto) and Ivo Diaz (NoMad alum) had when they partnered up on this project.
“There’s more to Venezuelan food than just the regular cachapas and arepas and burgers. It’s the easiest thing to do, but we wanted to explore more dishes from Venezuela. We do still serve those typical things, but we also serve things like asado negro, which is a short rib dish cooked for 44 hours. So a little more fine dining style,” Diaz told me.
(Ivo Diaz, image via Casa Ora)
In terms of how he and Herrera linked up, “I met Chef Luis, and it was one of those, “Oh my god!” moments. It was a good combination of me and him.”
According to Herrera, “[Ivo] had the idea of having dishes he (and myself) grew up with, but with a more contemporary approach, and adapted to ingredients we could find in New York, without taking the essence out of anything; it should still feel and taste like home.”
One big challenge has been that Diaz and Herrera are from different regions of Venezuela with different styles of cuisine. “[Ivo] is from Maracaibo (West Coast) where everything is fried and big and very savory. I’m from Caracas, the capital, where the flavor profile is a little sweet and sour. We add sugar to our beans for example. In the end we compromised, and I made a menu where I covered a little bit of all the regions in Venezuela,” said Herrera.
The plan is for the menu to change seasonally, though, which ought to lend some wiggle room for dish diplomacy throughout the year.
(image via Casa Ora)
Funnily enough, Casa Ora’s biggest critic has actually been traditionalist Isbelis, Diaz’s mother who oversees the all-Venezuelan kitchen staff. “The whole idea behind the menu was to combine her flavor profile (the one Ivo grew up eating) with a more modern approach to the recipes, so she didn’t really understand the process, and her feedback was not positive at all,” said Herrera. But, he added, “She’s working really hard to get the project going. I learn from her, she learns from me.”
Something that everyone can agree on is that it would be ideal to be able to source produce directly from Venezuela. Unfortunately, at this time, that’s next to impossible. While sourcing ingredients here in the US hasn’t proven a huge struggle (Herrera noted that “every year it feels easier to find incredible quality products that I need for my recipes”), Diaz told me “we want to tap into all these little things that Venezuela has that nobody really does,” such as cheese and chocolate, and even indigenous cuisine.
So one of the biggest questions I had for the guys might seem kind of obvious, then (assuming you have even a remote knowledge of the current political situation in Venezuela, which has led to extreme shortages on food and other basic necessary commodities) – what’s it like to be working in the food industry overseas at a time like this, especially in a country where food is often quite abundant, even to the point of decadence, and many people might be ignorant of the situation back home?
Herrera said, “I think it is very important for Venezuelans outside of Venezuela to spread our culture, doing what each person knows how to do best. In my case, it’s cooking. I see it as an informative channel for people that aren’t aware of the situation in Venezuela, like you say. It’s a good way to start a conversation about it and get people interested and also a good way to give back.”
Of course, that’s not the only way Diaz and Herrera are giving back; Herrera works with several non-profit organizations doing work in Venezuela to improve the critical food and medicine shortages, and Diaz has been talking with Fe y Alegría, a non-profit which he hopes to make an official beneficiary of a portion of Casa Ora’s proceeds in the near future.
(image via Casa Ora)
While I was only able to stick around for cocktails and appetizers as I got the lowdown on the project’s goals, it was super apparent that Casa Ora is doing something really special. The space itself is great, and everything I tried was dangerously tasty. And so it goes without saying that you should 110% head over to 148 Meserole Street in Brooklyn to check it out for yourself; it’s open for dinner from 5:30pm to 11pm Tuesday – Friday, and same deal on Saturdays and Sundays, but additionally there’s weekend brunch that runs 11am to 3:30pm.
Wondering what to order once you get there? Herrera hooked us up with some ace picks for a variety of scenarios:
Need a hangover cure? Order “fluke ceviche, mussel escabeche.”
Going on a first date? Order “something light. I’d do mussels, heart of palm salad and scallops. Try the tequeños, too, but no sauce.”
Trying to be adventurous? Order “the baby shark. It has a very particular flavor profile. It is sweeter that people expect, but that’s how we do it. Not even all Venezuelans get this dish. It’s very typical on the East Coast of the country.”
*I ate a baby shark empanada and I can attest that while flavor was completely new to me, it was really good. Also, try not to make a “Baby Shark” joke if you order it, I dare you.
Just want a good first introduction to Venezuelan food? Order “tequeños, arepas and empanadas, which are a must. Staple street food made fun size. Pabellón and asado negro will be your hosts. Arroz con pollo if want to feel like you’re at a grandma’s house.”