Colina Cuervo and Jorge Salamea
If you haven't heard of it already there is an excellent cafe on Nostrand Avenue between St. Johns and Lincoln; judging by how crowded it sometimes is and the word of mouth one gets about it, many people already know about this place. People notice the high quality of the ingredients, the wonderful choices on the menus, the hospitable staff, the comfortable atmosphere. None of these things are accidents; they are all part of a carefully thought out plan created by Jorge Salamea. Colina Cuervo is his latest project; there have been many before since he arrived in New York over twenty years ago. His arrival in New York was one of life's random events. He was attending college in Ecuador and decided to visit his family in the States during a vacation from school. That vacation turned into an extended stay that has no end in sight, and the desire to do something fun on vacation turned into a carefully plotted plan in which Jorge has steadily gained experience, insight and deep understanding about the food industry and life itself.
When Jorge first came to the US he was shocked. He came from a fair size city in Ecuador but he was not prepared for the pace, noise, manners, sheer size and diversity of New York. Also he did not speak English so he was cut off from a lot of what was going on. And yet, eventually he came to feel a comfort in New York that was greater than what he felt in Ecuador. A large part of the that was due to the multitudes of immigrants here. Jorge fit in as well as anyone else, and soon it became clear that he had something to contribute. He went to classes and learned to speak English, so well that today he is perfectly easy to understand and just has a hint of an accent which is hard to place. He began work as a dishwasher but kept an eye on what was going on around him. Soon he was a line cook and then a manager of various establishments and then the General Manager of a restaurant given two stars by the New York Times. He operated Nightgale 9 in Carroll Garden and then came Colina Cuervo
Along the way Jorge married an American woman who is a publicist at Random House. He had and boy followed by twins, and he got a great apartment in Prospect Heights at just the right time. Like many Brooklynites he worries about the schools. He and his wife are waiting to hear if their son is going to get into the school they chose as best for him.
Starting with the name (Colina Cuervo means Crow Hill, an old name for the area) Jorge has thought carefully about life in Crown Heights. He feels at home here and he knows how to make others feel the same way. He has carefully developed the menu at the cafe so that it is original but also completely unpretentious. One always feels better after eating at the restaurant and it is a great place to take friends or visiting relatives. Such outsiders will thank you for showing them this place. The menu there has been long tested and is prepared by a group of people who have moved along with Jorge from one place to another. Usually his cooks know what he wants and they deliver, and if they don't understand, Jorge will train them until they do. Personally, I often choose the pancakes and eggs for breakfast and the lentil soup along with a mushroom melt sandwich for lunch. All the salads are great and for a snack in the afternoon, the lemongrass tea and the carrot cake. As with the cooking, buying food has become a routine. Jorge has sought out high quality items and varies them as necessary by the season. Occasionally he will try out something new. He just recently put chicken and fried rice on the menu; it has be a notable hit.
Another factor is the staff. Jorge says he chooses waiters and baristas whom he would be happy to invite to his own home. Usually they are young and often accomplished; artists of all kinds have come through – painters, musicians, and dancers. Most have been to college and even graduate school – an anthropologist and an English grad student stand out in my mind. They are always friendly and intelligent and glad to talk without pushing their way into someone else's life. There have been a number of couples. Sympathy, banter, gossip and comment on the latest news are all possible. In the atmosphere that ensues I have several times forgotten to pay as I feel like I am visiting home. When this happens I get a gentle reminder the next time I come in. The mainstay of the staff is Karina who I believe has been there the longest and is Jorge's cousin. If she has ever made a mistake I have never heard of it, and she is unflappable, working her way through days in which the place is packed; she never gets irritable, and she keeps things moving. She is a nice person and totally professional. I don't know if she has a title, but effectively she is the manager.
Jorge never wants to stay still. “There must always be growth,” he says, but he would never try to repeat Colina Cuervo elsewhere. The cafe is unique, partly because of the way it fits into Crown Heights, but it might be possible to open other restaurants and leave the day-to-day work to a manager. Jorge says that if you live slightly below your means, then many things are possible. If he were ever looking for investors, I think they would line up to buy shares.
So whether you need a quick coffee and pastry on the run to work, or a good place to slowly eat your breakfast during the week and do work on your computer, or have a fun time having lunch with a friend, or tea and a piece of cake to unwind in the afternoon, you can stop in at Colina Cuervo, read the newspaper, have a chat with Kai about the weather or her new pair of earrings. You will come away feeling a bit better, and that is exactly what Jorge intended when he created this gem of a place.
– John DeWind