elNico opens on May 9 in Williamsburg. Photo by Alice Gao, courtesy of elNico

The RundownNew York

ElNico in Williamsburg Is an Ode to the Food and Culture of the Latin American Diaspora


Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened restaurants.

Here we’re taking a look at elNico, a new rooftop restaurant opening on May 9 on at the Penny Hotel in Williamsburg.

Here’s everything you need to know before you go:

1. Chances are that if you liked The NoMad — or serious cocktails — you might like this spot, too.

The Penny Hotel where elNico is located comes from the same hotel company, Sydell Group, behind The NoMad and the Freehand hotel brands. The NoMad in New York is now known as The Ned, but the bar at The NoMad was once admired as one of the city’s premier cocktail lounges. Here in New York, the Freehand is home to Broken Shaker, a critically acclaimed rooftop cocktail bar.

And likewise, at elNico, a well-known drinks pro is leading the charge: Leo Robitschek, a NoMad alum, and now Sydell partner, heads up a deep bench of talent, which includes chef Fernanda (“Fer”) Serrano, (formerly executive sous chef at The NoMad London, as well as Mexico City’s Pujol and New York’s Cosme) and bar director Cristhian Rodriguez (formerly of The NoMad and Eleven Madison Park).

Chef Fernanda (“Fer”) Serrano Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
Bar director Cristhian Rodriguez Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
Leo Robitschek, partner of the Sydell Group Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
Leo Robitschek, partner of the Sydell Group Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico

2. The menu pays homage to the Latin American diaspora.

Taking its name from ancient Greek and Italian roots meaning “victory to the people,” elNico pays tribute to the team and surrounding area’s multicultural heritage: Chef Serrano is a Mexico City native, while Robitschek hails from Venezuela, and Rodriguez is from Peru. “We all immigrated to the U.S. as children,” Robitschek says. “It’s about all of our stories — it’s about our childhood, our travels, and finding ourselves in this city.”

The menu reflects Serrano’s heritage and travels in particular, reflected in new takes on street-food dishes like sopes, a thick tortilla with fresh tomatillos, white onions, crème fraiche, and caviar. “It’s inspired by blinis and caviar,” Serrano says. There’s also a memorable pink molé, a vegetarian version of the traditionally meaty sauce in which beets, tahini, and pine nuts meld Mexican and Middle Eastern inspirations for the dish.

The pink molé dish from elNico Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
The pink molé dish from elNico Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico

3. The food is meant to be shared.

Expect large-format dishes and plates intended to share as snacks. A prime example: the pulpo pibil, a fried octopus tendril sliced into tender rounds and served with toum (a Lebanese-style creamy whipped garlic sauce) and xnipec (a sspicy salsa from the Yucatan peninsula; here resembling a slaw).

The dish is inspired by the cochinita pibil Serrano enjoyed as a child in Mexico. “It brings nostalgia to me,” she explains. But instead of traditional braised pork, she features octopus — her mother’s favorite protein, instead.

Guests are encouraged to scoop morsels of octopus into tortillas, along with the condiments and a few vinegar-and-salt potato chips, a throwback to another memory, of mashing potato chips into a sandwich as a kid. Serrano is well aware this is an unorthodox juxtaposition: “I want people to say, ‘Wait, I’m putting chips on a taco made from an octopus?’” It’s just the kind of playful element elNico wants guests to remember. Sums up Robitschek: “We’re serious, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The pulpo pibil Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
The pulpo pibil Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico

4. The bar pedigree is impeccable.

Given Robitschek’s background, of course the drinks will be a primary draw, centering agave spirits in drinks like a seasonal rhubarb margarita (blanco Tequila, rhubarb, Aperol, yuzu, and lime).

“Agave is the primary focus, but it’s not the only focus,” Robitschek says. In addition to classics and drinks featuring peak-season ingredients, the “preserved” section of the drinks menu reflects Robitschek’s pandemic experience of learning to preserve seasonal ingredients via jams, shrubs, fermentations, and infusions.

Some of these elements carry over to the kitchen, too: Look for the ramp martini, which includes pickled ramps and is made “a little dirty” thanks to a splash of ramp pickling liquid. Meanwhile, the highly seasonal allium greens are turned into a ramp oil to dress the guacamole.

Rodriguez will be running day-to-day operations at the bar. The wine list will focus on smaller producers from around the globe, with a substantial list of about 15 by-the-glass offerings, and an all-New York beer lineup. Meanwhile, non-alcoholic drinks riff off some of the team’s childhood favorites, like batidos, chica morada, and aguas frescas.

The pickled ramp martini features Beefeater, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and pickled ramps. Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
The cantaloupe paloma is made with Vida mezcal, lime, cantaloupe, and jasmine. Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
The rhubarb margarita is made with Ocho Blanco tequila, rhubarb, yuzu, Aperol, and lime. Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
The Verd-Rita is made with Vida mezcal, lemon, Verdita, avocado, epazote, and salt. Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico

5. Ingredients will shift with the season.

Expect drinks and dishes — even staples that stay on the menu year-round — to change with the seasons, with local produce supplied by urban farms like Brooklyn’s Farm.One and other local purveyors.

For example, a vegetarian tlayuda — a large tostada some liken to a “Mexican pizza” — will be piled with whatever vegetables are in season at the moment, along with tzatziki, pomegranate, and sumac. Similarly, an ice cream sandwich will always be part of the dessert menu, but it will vary depending on what’s available at the greenmarket.

The tlayuda Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico
The tlayuda Photo by Eric Medsker, courtesy of elNico

6. Even the artwork is a neighborhood affair.

Designed to channel an “eccentric artist’s plant-filled living room and studio space,” fern-green sofas and multi-hued napkins and tableware draw the eye, set amid the dining room’s otherwise neutral gray and wood tones and mostly-bare concrete floor. An installation of paper sculptures made from recycled materials by local artist Yuko Nishikawa (“she lives two blocks away”) reads like colorful confetti fluttering overhead.

The modest 3,500-square-foot space is anchored by a bar that commands a full wall of the room – a clear indication that veteran bar pro Robitschek had a voice in the room design. (You may also note also the unusual round cut-out in the curtains, which ensures the bar won’t miss the sweeping views outside, nor will any liquids splash the drapes.) A built-in DJ booth and room for live music and performances will cater to a lively late-night crowd.

Of course, as a rooftop bar, the panoramic views will always be a primary attraction, and two private terraces with drink rails flank either side of the dining room. A glassed-in conservatory will be added later for year-round use.

elNico is currently open Sunday and Monday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; and Thursday to Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Brunch is expected to debut later in May.

Kara Newman is a New York City-based writer, editor, and cocktail book author. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.