For those who must (like this writer, for example), eating gluten-free isn't always easy at restaurants. There are often whole menu sections—like the one containing sandwiches or pitching pasta—that those with celiac disease (like moi) or gluten intolerance (like many), simply need to skip over. But some chefs, like Giovanni Morales at Ooviña, are making it easy for those of us so used to limiting our options. Located on Ninth Avenue in the heart of Hell's Kitchen, Ooviña is the new brunch spot you need to pencil into your Sunday, whether gluten turns you off or not.
Co-established with Stephen Hoover, Morales's partner of more than 20 years, Ooviña has been making its name as a tapas and wine bar, successfully filling the space of Market Cafe, which the couple previously ran at the same address. Now, it's also the place to turn in those hungry, earlier hours, with French toast, waffles, and burger and egg dishes that are likely better than those that other brunch spots pack with gluten. Invited into the cozy Ooviña space at 496 Ninth Ave, we chatted with Hoover about the establishment's inception and impact, and why you should come for the food, and stay for fun, 20-foot wall projections.
Out: In general, what motivated you to create an entire gluten-free menu? Was there a demand from your clientele?
Stephen Hoover: My parents were diagnosed with gluten and several other food allergies about 10 years ago. Not being sufferers ourselves, it became very problematic for Giovanni and I to find restaurants with great food that all could enjoy. When creating our menu for Ooviña, we set out to address the issue, as we knew it wasn't unique to us (or those we knew). Being a tapas menu, it was always meant to be shared by all, so it was important to leave out the gluten in a way that would appeal to people who suffer gluten intolerance, but wouldn't neglect people who don't.
Some people frown upon gluten-free dining, as if it's a silly fad, yet there are many people for whom gluten creates digestive discomfort, and then there are people like me, who have celiac disease, and legitimately must eat gluten-free. In your experience, what's the primary response from people about gluten-free eating?
The response to our menu has been so positive. A lot of people are misinformed about gluten-free eating, but there are so many people who are affected themselves, or may not be affected, and find it hard to pick a spot to eat with someone who is. People have been really appreciative that we've created a place where anyone can come and enjoy a meal—one that is first and foremost delicious, and also happens to be gluten free. I think the thing we would like to get out there for people who don't know much about gluten free eating, is that gluten is a wheat protein that has nothing to do with flavor. You can enjoy a dish without it and never even realize it wasn't there.
What's the hardest thing about creating gluten-free recipes that taste just as good as glutenous dishes?
We don't find it to be difficult at all. Giovanni's native Central American cuisine doesn't rely on flour to create flavor or texture, so it's actually authentically gluten-free. By using fresh ingredients and preparing everything to order, we don't use items that add gluten as a preservative or to build texture. Giovanni is recreating recipes from his mother's and grandmother's kitchens that really never included gluten to begin with. So it isn't a matter of leaving things out—it's about the good things that get put in.
Is it true that gluten-free baked goods, given their need for more density, are generally more caloric than glutenous baked goods?
That is probably answered properly on a case-by-case basis, but I think the common consensus is that if it is higher, it isn't by much. I have done some reading on this subject and found that some gluten-free breads have been found to be 10 to 20 calories higher per slice, and others about the same as their glutenous counterparts.
Ooviña been primarily a tapas and wine bar. What prompted the initiative to start a brunch as well?
Honestly, we were getting a lot of requests to do brunch. We had a very successful brunch with our previous concept, Market Cafe [based in the same location], and our regulars were begging us to bring brunch back.
You noted that you have a lot of gay customers. Apart from the fact that you're located in a gay mecca like Hell's Kitchen, why do think you attract a large gay clientele? Could it be the campy films you project on your walls in the daytime?
As gay men ourselves, I think it's natural for us to have a large base of support from our community. We've put together a place that is beautiful, has amazing drinks, an outstanding wine list, delicious food, and, yes, sometimes shows some kitschy movies on our 20-foot projection wall. But it's the kind of place we ourselves would like to spend time in, so I think it translates and relates to our community on many levels.
You and Giovanni have been together for 21 years. For many couples, it's difficult to be partnered in both work and love. What's your secret to remaining simpatico, and what have you learned about building businesses while also building a relationship?
To say it has been easy wouldn't be the truth—it has been very challenging at times. But it continues to be an amazing adventure. What makes it rewarding is that we both have different strengths that we bring to the table, and we can trust each other to bring our best. It's amazing to create something with the person you love, and work really hard to make it a happen. The true secret is to master the art of leaving work at work, home at home, and remembering to have fun, even when things get real and the pressure is on.
Of everything on your brunch menu, what would you recommend most and why?
Of course I'm going to say everything is delicious, because it is. But the standouts for me would have to be our Vaca Frita, which is our grilled skirt steak in kale chimichuri sauce with sweet plantain and rice mash, under a fried egg. Our french toast with goat cheese, raisin chutney, and caramel drizzle is amazing, and our tres leches waffle with vanilla cream cheese frosting and a homemade mixed berry preserve is everything. All of these dishes are unique to us and, of course, completely gluten free.
Aside from your gluten-free menu, what would you say makes Ooviña stand out from other brunch spots? Why should the Hell's Kitchen crowd, and crowds beyond that, make your restaurant their brunch go-to?
We are doing flavors you aren't going to experience anywhere else, in an environment that isn't like anything else. We make everything to order, so you are getting a dish made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. We often have live DJs, and there is always something fun playing on our projection wall. We also do a bottomless brunch cocktail special for an hour and a half with any entree, so prepare yourself for generous pours of mimosas, bellinis, margaritas, and Bloody Marys!
Learn more about Ooviña at www.OovinaNYC.com.