Restaurant Review: Buena Vida
Restaurateur Ivan Iricanin takes Mexican to the next level—make that three stories.
Arriving upstairs, we step into an airy, golden-hued space with large picture windows. The décor may be best described as beachy rustic chic, with wooden tables, birch floors, wicker-basket ceiling pendants and rattan-backed chairs. A few accent walls are playfully adorned with Keith Haring-like squiggles. I admire the striped cotton napkins and succulents on the tables and fall in love with the ceiling’s soundproofing panels—seeming relics of yesteryear, back when diners could hold conversations over dinner without shouting.
The owners attribute Buena Vida Clarendon’s culinary repertoire to chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, whose family has owned the acclaimed Restaurante Nicos in Mexico City’s Azcapotzalco neighborhood since 1957. As a consultant, Lugo helped develop the menu and recipes. He also trained 33-year-old Nikola Stefanovic, Buena Vida’s actual chef, who made two trips to Mexico for said tutelage. Prior to this post, Stefanovic worked for Street Guys Hospitality in Serbia.
Moments after we’re seated, an affable server eagerly suggests libations, while delivering a bowl of house-made tortilla chips with two salsas—one made with roasted tomatoes and hints of chipotle pepper; the other featuring tomatillo and lime.
I’m not normally a sangria fan, but Buena Vida’s version, which is strawberry forward and enlivened with mint and lime, wins me over. So does La Mexicana, a blend of rum, soursop (a tropical fruit) syrup, lemon and pomegranate. Various staff members offer to bring more drinks throughout the meal, walking a fine line between good service and overselling.
Buena Vida’s guacamole is a Nicos recipe, made with olive oil and without lime juice. It’s nicely chunky and packed with onions and tomatoes, but in my opinion it needs acid to cut the richness. Of course, that doesn’t keep me from eating all of it.
From the raw bar, slices of raw shrimp resting in an electrifying green marinade of cilantro, serrano peppers and lime juice are prettily topped with micro cilantro and a tangle of red onion slivers. The acid in the aguachile (literally “chili water”) is supposed to “cook” the shrimp, but mine could definitely use more time in the bath. I love the bold, refreshing flavor of the marinade and lap it up, but can’t abide the shrimp’s abject rawness. (Perhaps if the slices were thinner they would have denatured more readily.)
An order of fried shrimp, coated with amaranth seeds and served with a zesty habañero mayo, brings to mind coconut shrimp of yore. If you’re a fan of that dish you will enjoy this offering—although in my mind, its accompanying salad of pineapple, jicama and watermelon, with bits of onion and heat, steals the crustaceans’ thunder and is the real winner here.