Food North America Profiles Restaurants

What Do Pig Trotter Ice Cream, Dexter And Pickled Blood Oranges Have In Common? Find Out At NYC’s Louro Restaurant

Louro Bar. Photo courtesy of Alice Gao
Louro Bar. Photo courtesy of Alice Gao.

Walking into Louro Restaurant feels like coming home. I immediately relax as I enter its laid-back West Village neighborhood, whose quiet parks and bookstores provide an oasis of serenity amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City. Louro’s unassuming entrance opens up to a cheery and classy interior, where candles flicker against white-brick walls and international music creates an entrancing ambiance. Locals catch up over a drink at the bar and newcomers pursue a clipboard, contemplating the wide range of modern cuisine contained on the menu.

My brother and I sit under a painting of a bay leaf, whose Portuguese translation serves as the name for the eating establishment. Before we know it, a basket of warm pillowy rolls arrives beneath our noses.  My brother instantly slathers it in the provided spread, pausing in pleasure as soon as he takes a bite.

“This is good.  What is it?”

Suddenly, the attentive waiter pipes up, “It’s the chef’s famous pork butter.”  He gestures toward the front wall, “If you really like it, the recipe’s right there. Louro Restaurant‘s Chef David isn’t like other chefs. He loves to share his creations”.

Just then, the young chef approaches from behind, interrupting with a laugh, “I’m an open book.”

Chef David Santos.  Photo courtesy of Jose Moran Moya
Chef David Santos. Photo courtesy of Jose Moran Moya.

Out comes a refreshing watermelon salad, doctored with a kiwi spread and topped with tsukemono (Japanese pickled cabbage) for crunch.

“I’m a huge texture person,” Chef David comments, “and I’m always looking for ways to incorporate my pickling experiments”.  He grins mischievously, revealing his inner mad scientist, and gestures to display a giant wall of colorful labeled jars. “Pickling and preserving has always been at the root of my life, but it really took off here at Louro. This is where I decided to dedicate time and effort to pickling, preserving, culturing and fermenting. It was a way of taking something we already knew and making it different.”

Chef David excitedly pulls out a sunset-colored container of Spanish Monroe blood oranges that he picked up on a trip to Europe and marinated the rinds with saffron. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with some of this stuff but that’s what keeps life interesting.”

Louro Interior.  Photo courtesy of Katie Ett
Louro interior and pickling wall. Photo courtesy of Katie Ett

All of a sudden, another appetizer arrives, this time a cooked squash piled with puffed grains, salty nuts and fresh basil.  When it is joined by a sizzling pan of kimchi fried rice, covered in duck egg, I decide to distract him with another question so I can savor the slow crescendo of spice in this new dish. “How did your culinary career begin?”

Culinary Immersion From Childhood

Born in New Jersey as the son of Portuguese immigrants, Chef David’s family exposed him to all aspects of food production, from gardening to raising animals to baking bread. His dad made his own wine and his mom kept her own garden, allowing him to learn from a young age about planning meals around seasonal produce.

David recalls, “That’s how my mom grew up and she brought that with her to the States. I remember being in the supermarket with her in the winter as a child and her not understanding why they were selling peaches in December. Things like that helped make me become the cook that I am today. I kind of laugh at the whole ‘farm-to-table, seasonal’ thing because that’s what you’re supposed to do, not something you advertise.”

Exploring The World Of Food

Although food formed the backbone of his upbringing, Chef David Santos did not receive much formal culinary training from his family members — although they did inspire him to pursue a degree in the Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University in 2001. After graduation, Chef David traveled through Europe and South America, tasting and learning as much as he could along the way.  He claims this spirit of discovery forms the basis of his culinary philosophy.

He elaborates, “The philosophy is very much like the Portuguese explorers of old. I’m not satisfied with being any one thing. We push ourselves to explore the world of food. To expand our horizons and to learn as much as we can — then pass this exploration onto our guests”.

How Does Louro Help YOU Expand Your Culinary Horizons?

From ever-evolving menus to themed dinners to special events, Chef David does his best to ensure every visit to Louro is a unique experience. In fact, you can eat at Louro over 80 times in a year and never have the same meal: 52 different tastings in the Monday supper club Nossa Mesa alone, not to mention an ever evolving menu and special wine dinners and events along the way.

Louro Gnocchi Parisienne.  Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan
Louro Gnocchi Parisienne. Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

With so much going on at Louro, I ask Chef David to describe these opportunities in more detail; however, before he starts talking, my brother and I order another course so we can taste what we’ve learned about — you know, for educational purposes. I opt for the potato gnocchi, which made its menu debut yesterday. When it arrives, a generous assortment of mushrooms smothers the spongy gnocchi, all of which is enveloped in a tasty cream sauce.

My brother opts for the lobster “roll,” which turns out to be different than your typical summertime sandwich. Unlike the typical lobster roll, the dish does not rely on butter for flavor, but instead offers an assortment of textures to enliven the experience.  A generous scoop of Maine lobster tops an open-faced slice of toasted brioche bread, which in turn is sprinkled with chopped celery and ruby-colored salmon eggs.

As we feast on uber-fresh dishes, I ask Chef David to elaborate on why he changes the menu so often.

“’Why not?’ is the real question,” he replies. “There are seasons within seasons and I just hate seeing the same things over and over again. The menu does not change for the sake of change, but to push ourselves to learn more as well as to keep menu costs appropriate”.

He recognizes some guests want consistency, so he keeps a few dishes constant throughout the year, including the beloved “Octopus Bolognese.” For the dish Chef David chose ingredients that do not waiver in quality throughout the year — octopus, garlic, onions, carrots, good canned tomatoes and wine — and can be enjoyed regardless of the weather. Learning about cooking according to the seasons and tasting food this fresh makes me wonder how any restaurant can keep their menu static; however, when I spy the animated gleam in the eye of the chef in front of me, I quickly realize most chefs do not have the energy to perpetually innovation like Chef David does.

Having Fun With Themed Supper Clubs

Thoughtfully, I ask Chef David about his Nossa Mesa supper clubs, a tradition he started in his personal Roosevelt Island home during a much-needed break from the gourmet restaurant scene. After working in extreme kitchen conditions, Santos wanted to develop his own culinary voice by launching Um Segredo, a series of supper clubs in 2012. These theme-dinners developed almost a cult following, and attendees helped the chef raise the funds to open his own restaurant a year later.

Today, Chef David continues this tradition on Monday nights, featuring a different theme each week, often inspired by pop culture or seasonal ingredients (6-7 courses, from $55, BYOB). He’s hosted Dexter-themed dinners, complete with home-made blue pop-rocks, 1920s themed Gatsby dinners and even a menu that utilizes Ramen in a half-dozen ways.  He even lets his assistant chefs plan the menu once a month, playfully announcing those dinners with the label, “The inmates run the asylum.”

Chef David takes mentoring his assistants seriously and he’s proud of how they have risen to the occasion.  He jokes, “They’re not going to get rich in this business, but I hope to leave them rich in knowledge.”

The passion in his voice reveals that he truly enjoys cooking, sharing this with his guests and co-chefs.

“My philosophy is to love what we do and let our guests feel that love. I think that in itself makes our restaurant special. To take so much care and love into what we are doing is the heart of Louro. We are inspired by the world around us, which means everything and anything.”

Louro bread with Portuguese butter, made from pork lard.  Louro Gnocchi Parisienne.  Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan
Louro bread with Portuguese butter, made from pork lard. Louro Gnocchi Parisienne. Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

Utilizing The Whole Hog With Nose-To-Tail Customized Catering

When I ask Chef Santos about his nose-to-tail private events and parties, I realize he’s serious about using every part of the animal.  For these, he works with guests to come up with a menu, a process that might shock some.  When requesting a 5-course suckling pig dinner, one might expect sausage from the hams, porchetta out of the loin and some pork belly; however, Chef David takes it one — or 10 — step further, maybe smoking the trotters for an aromatic and carnivorous smoked trotter ice cream, possibly served with sticky maple and bourbon-glazed donuts.

Hearing about dessert reminds us we need to finish off our meal so we ask for the menu. Chef David waves away the waiter, explaining he has a weekly dessert competition with his two assistant chefs, and thus we need to try all three in order to appropriately judge. I pat my stomach and look skeptical, but when dessert arrives I know I must find room.

My experience begins with the savory option: a honey frozen yogurt with cucumber and watermelon flowers. From there, I move to a fruity huckleberry compote smothered in home-made caramel and frosty buttermilk snow.  To finish complete my decadent mission, I sample the “Louro Donut,” whose popularity on the previous week’s menu allowed it to carry over to now. For this sweet plate, chocolate ricotta and dark chocolate mousse floats over an airy beignet gowned in toasted hazelnuts.

Chef David looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to cast my vote.  I weasel my way out of picking a favorite, smirking, “At this place it is  hard to go wrong.”

Louro Donuts. Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan
Louro Donuts (slightly different than the one I tried). Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

Chef David perfectly personifies the Ella Fitzgerald quote, “Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”

His creative menus may sneak some strange things on your plate — pig trotters in your ice cream? — but his attention to detail and love of food transfer into animated, unforgettable dishes.  If you want a dining experience where passion and innovative thinking forms the basis of every dish, you can not go wrong with Chef David’s cooking at Louro in New York City.

Have you dined at Louro Restaurant in NYC? Please share your experience in the comments below.

Featured image courtesy of Mandy Madness via Shutterstock

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Katie Foote

Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she spent several years travelling the world as much as possible. After four years of semi-nomadic life, she spent a couple years in Auckland, New Zealand and recently moved to Vancouver, Canada. Despite living more traditionally, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes kickboxing, yoga and exploring her extraordinary new backyard of British Columbia.

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