Sunday, October 25, 2015

Taberna del Alabardero

Full disclosure: the post I am about to write is based on a freebie. I was invited to a media event at Taberna del Alabardero, where Chef Javier Romero showcased his fall menu in the restaurant's private dining room. Accepting this sort of invitation is risky. The premise of Dishes to Die For is that I only post about spectacular food. Unless a dish moves me, I don't write about it. But by accepting this invitation, I was more or less promising that I would write. Still, the opportunity was too good to pass up, and I went.
Luckily, of the ten dishes that were presented, I can honestly rave about two of them. A third gets an honorable mention. And a fourth was widely praised by other attendees.

First the two dishes to die for:
Paella de Langosta: Paella of Maine lobster, mussels, and calamari.
Chef Romero considers himself an ambassador of Spain and cleaves to the classics. The paella is made with Calasparra rice, the traditional paella rice, grown in only one region of Spain. But like a good diplomat, the chef also tunes in to American sensibilities. And so what really sent me here was the lobster. Fresh from the chilly waters of Maine, the lobster is grilled and served in the shell, rather than cooked with the rest of the ingredients. Swoon. No, make that swoooon. The result is that the meat inside is smoky and sweet at the same time, flavorful yet nuanced, moist but not mushy. If you order this, do ask for a lobster cracker - you will not want to let a morsel of this divine creature go to waste for want of not being able to crack the shell. The dish was artfully paired with a Lopez de Haro tempranillo -- I might never return to white wine with lobster again. I must confess that I was so taken with the lobster and wine pairing that I was distracted from the paella itself. But my neighbor to the left, who does not eat shellfish, was able to focus better. She was impressed with the vegetarian paella -- also on the menu -- served with seasonal mushrooms.
Rape a la Parilla con Cangrejo Cremoso: Grilled monkfish over marinated giant broad beans
Oh the lowly monkfish. So ugly that it is often passed over, including by me. Think again. Chef Romero is a master with using the grill to draw out the sweet flavors of fish. Like the lobster, the monkfish is first grilled, then brushed with a crab dip - a nod to Annapolis. At the table, the dish is spritzed with fresh lemon. In the almost 3 hours of eating we did that night, this was the one dish that had me reaching for seconds. A tip for home cooks: according to the chef, monkfish bones make the best fish stock. So even if cooking monkfish is not for you, consider asking your fishmonger for the bones to take home.
Now for the honorable mention:
Tartar de Atun: Yellowfin tuna tartar with Spanish ajoblanco (almond garlic and pistachio sauce)
Let me just say: there are a lot of tuna tartars on offer in DC. This is one of the better ones. If you want to replicate the ajoblanco, you will need to start 24 hours in advance: this gives the nuts, garlic, bread, and olive oil time to lend their flavors to each other. Pair with a gentle dry white.
Raved about by others:
Mollejas de Ternera: Veal sweetbreads with chanterelle mushrooms, fava beans, and potato gnocchi
By this point in the meal (this was course #9), I was really full. And besides, I am sure I am not alone when I say that I have a hard time with sweetbreads, and especially veal sweetbreads. So, while I could appreciate the brown sugar sherry sauce that I think was a good pairing for offal, I still had a hard time with each swallow. But others named this their best dish of the evening, so if sweetbreads are your thing, sounds like this might be a winner.

Chef Javier Romero
A word about Taberna del Alabardero: a DC institution for 26 years, the restaurant prides itself on its direct connection to Spain. The Taberna Group has 5 restaurants in Spain as well as a cooking school that supplies a steady stream of talent from Madrid, Seville, Malaga, Marbella, and San Pedro de Alcantara. This is a high end restaurant, but has good specials as well: check its website for happy hour deals and executive lunch weekday menu, currently running $28 for three courses.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Hartwood, Tulum: New York in the Jungle

If are up on your social media, you likely know by now that Hartwood is one of THOSE places: the trendy bordering on snooty kind that make you stand in line to get a reservation (see the restaurant website for instructions). Whether this is worth it or not is highly subjective. How do you personally walk the line between the annoyance of waiting and the pleasure of eating? Are you able to reconcile the indignity of supplication with the romance of firelight?

My rule of thumb is that I am willing to invest an hour of my time for superlative food. Right now, this level of investment will get you a table at Hartwood at a reasonable time -- we were offered a table at 6:30 or 9, or at 7:00 at the bar. Scoring a table at the coveted times between 7-8:30 will require a higher investment. As of April 2015, that is. I predict that this state of affairs will not hold much longer as Hartwood's popularity grows. So it is unlikely I will be returning, unless perhaps in the off-season.

Alright, so how was the food? (and if you are irritated it has taken me so long to get to this point, consider this a mirror of the experience itself). First -- the romance of the jungle setting as the light fades and the candles are lit makes this a special experience. Even a religious experience, as a priest-like figure passes by swinging a brass censer, its incense-like contents spewing smoke intended to repel mosquitoes. And now, finally, to the sacrament, uh, I mean, food. Much has been made of the fresh fruit cocktails, and they were okay. But I was more impressed with the almost exclusively Mexican wine list, and very happy with the rose I chose. Who knew Mexico had such good wine? Tuna ceviche and jicama salad appetizers were indescribably good. It is this sort of eating that warrants the pain of getting through the door. The otherworldly mood set by the priest-like figure was sustained by these divine dishes. Alas, we were brought back to the mundane with the overly-sweetened ribs which were our main course. Agave marinade sounded like a good idea but turned out to be cloying. Corn and coconut ice cream for desert did nothing to restore the ecstasy.

Still, overall it was worth the wait. The one complaint I have has nothing to do with the logistics, the disappointing entree, or even the somewhat pretentious waitstaff. Rather it was with the hurried pacing of the courses. I have complained about this in other reviews as well: fine dining establishments should allow their guests the pleasure of a langorous meal. Having paid the price of admission, being rushed is the real indignity.