A Lakeland gem with Peruvian and Cuban influences (PHOTOS)

Nestled between the bustling cities of Tampa and Orlando, Lakeland, a quaint town in Polk County, might not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of fine dining. Traditionally, Lakeland’s culinary reputation has been more closely associated with hearty BBQ joints and comfort food diners than upscale gastronomy. However, the emergence of Nineteen61 has transformed the local dining scene, shaping it into a sophisticated culinary destination that beautifully melds Peruvian and Cuban influences.

At the heart of this culinary transformation are Chef Marcos Fernandez and his partner, mixologist Emerson Bamaca. Their labor of love, Nineteen61, has evolved from a modest 1,200 square foot space to a sprawling 3,000 square feet, with a rooftop expansion overlooking Munn Park. The restaurant’s ambiance is a testament to its founder’s passion and dedication. Adorned with Cuban art and featuring original booths crafted by Marcos himself, Nineteen61 exudes an inviting, and authentic, atmosphere.

The ethos of Nineteen61 is deeply rooted in its core values: family, integrity, respect, honesty, community, growth and innovation. These values resonate not only in the décor but also in the quality of the staff and the creations that grace the menu. The restaurant’s name, Nineteen61, pays homage to the year Marcos’ parents were exiled from Cuba, weaving a poignant narrative into the fabric of the establishment. Additionally, the Peruvian influence in the menu comes from Marcos’ wife, Monica, adding a personal touch that enriches the culinary offerings.

Emerson, the creative mixologist behind BAR61, brings an enthusiasm for crafting exquisite cocktails that tantalize the senses. His attention to detail is evident in every concoction, from the seasonal favorite “Fall in Florida,” a harmonious blend of Barbados rum, allspice dram, homemade apple cider, frothy egg white and fernet branca amaro, to the daring “Macho Margarita,” featuring Peruvian aji limo infused tequila and a rim of chili salt. For bourbon enthusiasts, Nineteen61 hosts exclusive bourbon tasting events, featuring rare, Buffalo Trace Bourbon single-barrels handpicked specifically for the restaurant. These events, highly anticipated by connoisseurs, sell out quickly due to their limited availability.

Marcos, with his creative flair and culinary expertise, transforms each dish into a masterpiece, showcasing his individuality and passion for innovation. The menu is a testament to his skill, offering a diverse array of delectable options. The Croquetas de Jamon, served on a delightful bed of guava glace, harmonizes perfectly with the rich flavors of Manchego cheese and jamon serrano. The Peruvian Ceviche, a remarkable dish featuring corvina, a delicate white fish, is combined with cancha chocio, roasted corn kernels, marinated in authentic Peruvian leche de tigre. This infusion of fresh lime, cilantro and red onions elevates the ceviche to a sublime culinary experience. The Calamari Fritos, enhanced with the unexpected zing of jalapeno caramel and salsa, provides a delightful surprise for the palate. A crowd favorite, the Poutine Cubano, combines elements from both Cuban and Canadian cuisines. Succulent short-rib is generously piled over crispy yucca fries, drizzled with seco gravy—a Peruvian sauce infused with cilantro and garlic—and enhanced with a zesty rocoto aioli, creating a harmonious blend of flavors and textures. The “1961 Salad” stands out as simple, yet elegant, featuring artisan lettuce, Manchego and Swiss cheeses, elevated by its exceptional dressing, which is bottled and available for purchase.

The enticing entrees at Nineteen61 continue to impress, featuring traditional dishes from both Peru and Cuba. The Huancaina Pasta al Saltado, a fusion dish, seamlessly combines elements from “Lomo Saltado” and “Papa a la Huancaina.” Tender slices of beef are served over pasta, coated in a creamy, and spicy, aji amarillo pepper sauce, reminiscent of the classic Peruvian Huancaina sauce. Vaca Frita, meaning “fried beef” in Spanish, is a Cuban classic that has been perfected by Chef Marcos. Shredded beef, marinated and pan-fried to achieve a crispy exterior while retaining a tender interior, showcases the chef’s authenticity and dedication to his craft. While some dishes remain staples, the menu is updated several times a year to keep patrons coming back for more, ensuring a fresh, and exciting, culinary experience with each visit.

Looking ahead, Nineteen61 has ambitious plans for the future. The completion of the rooftop, anticipated for Spring 2024, promises to elevate the dining experience even further. Once completed, it will be the only rooftop in Lakeland, offering patrons an exquisite setting to enjoy elevated cocktails and cuisine. The vision of Marcos and Emerson goes beyond the confines of the restaurant; it is a vision of putting Lakeland on the culinary destination map. Through their expertise, unwavering passion and commitment to excellence, they continue to make significant strides in reshaping Lakeland’s dining landscape, creating a legacy that will be savored for years to come.♦

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