EAST WILLIAMSBURG — When Daniela Cadena, a Venezuelan social media strategist and content creator, visited Casa Ora for the first time in November, she made a beeline for mandocas, fried cornmeal rings.
“They’re not as popular or easy to find as other Venezuelan dishes, so anytime I see them on a menu I get excited,” she told Bklyner.
This reaction is precisely what Ivo Diaz was hoping for when he opened Casa Ora, an elegant Venezuelan restaurant in East Williamsburg, named after his toddler daughter. The spacious restaurant opened at the end of October and seats over 90, with a back room that’s available for private parties, a massive skylight, and photography from Venezuelan photographer Carlos P. Beltran.
Diaz’s menu elevates his mother’s home cooking. The family lives together down the block and mom is at the restaurant almost daily to manage inventory and prep, hesitant to leave the kitchen after a long workday.
After years of working as a bartender at high-end restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and the Nomad, Diaz spent four years consulting at hotels and restaurants around the city. He grew tired of the scene where “everyone hired you because of where you worked before” and was ready to start a project with personal meaning, especially as New York’s Venezuelan diaspora continues to grow.
Due to a political and economic crisis, an estimated three million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015 and New York has the largest population in the country (over 300,000). In particular, young people are leaving due to a lack of economic opportunity and many continue to support relatives back home and advocate for ways to help people living in extreme poverty. Diaz and Herrera are working to set up a partnership with a nonprofit back home that’s unaffiliated with any political group and will offer direct aid to children and people in need.
Having helped another chef open an arepa spot, Diaz decided to elevate his mom’s excellent cooking and put energy into his own business. He secured the space, which once used to be his regular barbershop, in September 2018, and collaborated with Chef Luis Herrera, formerly of Atla and Cosme, on the menu. Herrera also runs a Venezuelan food company, making deliveries across the city.
When Herrera heard Diaz was looking to open up a high-end Venezuelan place, it was a quick ‘yes’ – “that’s been my mission since I got to New York,” he told us.
After developing the menu and setting up the initial team at Casa Ora, Chef Herrera has stayed on as a consultant to update dishes for the seasons and to support the all-Venezuelan team of cooks. Het takes full credit for having hired two “passionate but inexperienced cooks” who were previously a dentist and a film producer – “They’re excited, they get the food, they know the flavor profile, they’re enjoying the moment,” he beamed.
Casa Ora team’s focus is on comfort foods, “the dishes people eat at home every day,” but in an upscale setting. Their version of pabellon, Venezuela’s national dish, is brisket braised overnight for about nine hours. It’s usually served shredded and at Casa Ora, diners shred it themselves. Rice and beans are combined and refried, inspired by the dinners Herrera’s dad would make when his mom was away.
Since opening at the end of October, they’ve seen an intense emotional response to the food. Diaz recalled a customer crying after eating the baby shark, a dish their mother used to make. Customers have responded similarly to the mandocas and the mousse de parchita (passion fruit). Diaz’s wife Rachel Pirard is responsible for Casa Ora’s desserts. Herrera describes these dishes as “the hidden dishes, the home food that no one is really doing anywhere.”
Along with the well-curated menu, rum cocktails are also a focus, “we have three of the best 10 rums in the world.” Many cocktails are named for people or events from Venezuela, like the Cinco de Julio, for Venezuelan independence day and 1783, for the year liberator Simon Bolivar was born.
“I wanted to some Venezuelan influence on the menu even with the names, so that Venezuelans who come in would recognize that” Diaz explained.
Others are more personal, like the Ora’s Ramble, named for his young daughter’s walking style–she walks without a destination. Nomad’s head bartender Jessica Gonzalez created a few cocktails including one made with mango, which Diaz requested to be a big part of the menu. There are more than 20 cocktail options, with a section for light and dark spirits.
Most of all, Casa Ora is for the Venezuelan people. A home away from home.
“Ivo, who’s been out of the country for longer than I have, knows, you start to miss things,” Herrera reminisced. Diaz moved to the US in 2002 at the age of 16, while Herrera moved here in 2014 after previously working at a restaurant in the US to save for culinary school back in Venezuela. “With more and more Venezuelans coming every day, it’s a collective sentiment of nostalgia that you’re feeling. There’s nothing like it and I also miss it.”
Visit Casa Ora at 148 Meserole Street. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. They also offer brunch on the weekends from 11:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.