Thursday, February 28, 2013

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Salinas -- New York, NY

Iberian cuisine in New York City has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, following in line with its emergence in the aughts as cutting-edge, its chefs as leaders in the gastronomical world. But even as El Bulli has served its last liquid olive, and foodie followers have moved on to Foraged Nordic Nouveau (copyright pending) as their food trend-of-the-minute...Iberian cuisine deserves a continued closer look, more menu perusals, deeper discovery by interested diners. My love of Mediterranean cuisines and exploring the subtle differences between one regional dish in coastal Spain and another version in Southern France...the similar threads between Greek moussaka, Bolognese lasagna, and Neapolitan eggplant parmigiana, and on and knows no bounds. And of these Mediterranean cuisines, I find Spanish food to be one of he most interesting. One place to explore all things Iberian, Mediterranean, and delicious is SALINAS, a gorgeous, somewhat-hidden gem of a Spanish spot in Chelsea.

The entrance is a bit subtle, shall we say, but when you walk through the front door, the warmth of the space immediately hits you. There is a small bar area and lounge up front, but to dine you are whisked down a narrow corridor to a gorgeous dining room that is intimate but spacious. Nothing here screams 'Spanish restaurant decor,' especially not of the kitschy variety we're used to from decades past, all wrought iron railings, red tablecloths and posters of bullfighters and flamenco dancers. In fact, the dining room has more of a zen Asian feel, with dim lighting and a fireplace in cool weather, a retractable roof that allows for semi-alfresco dining in warmer weather.

All of this atmosphere sets a tone for the sophisticated, urbane cuisine that comes out of chef Luis Bollo's kitchen. Chef Bollo hails from San Sebastián, a town in the north of Spain that boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other place on the planet. Bollo is a much-lauded chef who helmed Meigas, which opened in '99 in Manhattan (since relocated to Connecticut, along with another place called Ibiza: both named by critics as some of the country's best Spanish restaurants). He also partnered with the Meigas owners on launching Mediterra, one of my favorite hometown dining spots in Princeton, NJ.

SALINAS opened in 2011 with a focus on Spanish cuisine and that of the Balearic Islands. The name refers to the many open-air salt flats along the Mediterranean coast of Spain and its islands. As such, seafood plays an important role on the menu, which features various iterations, including fresh ceviche of seasonal fish, seared octopus, boquerones (white anchovies) with avocado on multi-grain toasts, and a tuna escabeche (a Spanish version of fish "cured" in acid -- often vinegar instead of citrus juice) with chickpeas and cauliflower. Depending on the season, you can also find Patagonian baby calamari with purple potato salad and pumpkin, and other various vegetable-based tapas. And of course, as any good Spaniard knows, the restaurant must also offer great Spanish charcuterias, including the famed Iberian cured hams that are considered the world's best (mi dispiace, Italia!

Squid ink fideos with shaved seppia and saffron aioli foam
As for larger courses, there is a separate category for fideos, the Catalonian version of paella made with broken vermicelli noodles. If you're not familiar with it...EAT. IT. NOW. It's addictive and delicious and I highly recommend the squid ink version, which comes topped with shaved seppia (cuttlefish), saffron foam, watercress, and beet powder. My dining companions who tried fideos for the first time were completely enamored of this dish. Other versions include the pasta with braised lamb shank, wild mushrooms, and goat cheese aioli, as well as a vegetarian vegetable version and one with chicken, chorizo, fava beans and a poached egg. These are seasonal, so expect these fideos to change according to the best of the market's offerings.

Among the platos principales, the house-cured bacalao (codfish) with Galician octopus, cockles, sweet potatoes and artichokes in a parsley broth is a standout. There's a delicious grilled chicken, a fairly traditional mixed paella (with delicious bites from sea and land), and a fish of the day. But probably the most famous main course, the dish for which Salinas is mentioned in the food press most often, is the porcella, the slow roasted suckling pig.And it's prepared just as it should be, with a crispy skin you could shatter with your fork, and meltingly tender and juicy pork meat underneath. It's served with light watercress and frisee lettuce to cut the fat, grilled quince to bring out the sweetness, and drizzled with a PX sherry reduction. Spain, in a nutshell -- or rather, on a plate. 
The sides are reliably delicious, if fairly basic: a mixed salad, sauteed garlic greens, addictive patatas bravas (spiced crispy potatoes), and a confit of piquillo peppers that just screams out to be sopped up by some crusty bread. 

Dessert is not really the point in Spanish restaurants, though there are always sure to be a few good pastries: the ubiquitous flan, a decadent chocolate dessert of some kind...Here there is a profiterole with passion fruit pastry cream and a rum and coconut panna cotta -- whisking you away to Mallorca or Ibiza for an island-breezy finishing touch to the meal. Or, do as I like to do and indulge in a "dessert cocktail" in place of an actual sweet. The Morena is a chocolate martini made with organic mezcal and passion fruit. Si, por favor! 

SALINAS 136 9th Ave 
New York, NY 10011
(212) 776-1990
Monday 6pm-10pm
Tuesday – Saturday 6pm-11pm
Sunday 5pm-8pm

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

QUICK BITE: Provencal Treats

In the Old Town section of Nice, on the Cote d'Azur, there is a wonderful jewel box of a confectionery shop called L'Art Gourmand. The place features beautiful French confections like an assortment of chocolates au lait, noir, and blanc (milk, dark, and white), marzipan fruits and animals that are well known in southern France, and various cookies and baked goods. 

Perhaps one of the most special of the spécialité are the fruit gelées. Made from intense, natural fruit flavors like raspberry, grapefruit, and apricot, these fruits are pureed and mixed with some fruit pectin (a plant-derived gelling agent) and sometimes a bit of sweetener and citric acid to maintain the flavor balance and brightness of color. These jellied strips are rolled in some sugar for crunch, and...voilà! You have a delicious candy that contains all the ripe juiciness of the fruit, in concentrated, delicious, portable form.

Another of the local specialties is torrone, a culinary remnant from the days when Nice was better known as Nizza, part of the Italian kingdom of Savoy and thereby ruled by the Italians, on and off until 1860. The nougat-with-nuts, of which there are various famous versions from northern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia (all territories ruled by the Duke of Savoy at some point), comes with various combinations of nuts and is sometimes covered in chocolate. Alongside the torrone you can find candied fruit, another specialty dating back to the 14th century, with its origin muddled between Spain, Italy, and France, when borders were more fluid. Probably a gift from the Arabs who dominated areas of Southern Europe at the time, candied fruit became an important part of many of the region's most famous desserts, including the Piemontese panettone and Sicilian cassata

Of course for real chocolate lovers (and I count myself firmly among the true chocoholics of the world), chocolate is always in season and always the thing to get. And L'Art Gourmand has a great selection of chocolates and truffles from which to choose. From chocolate-covered nuts and praline-filled chocolate squares to chocolate-dipped candied fruits and peels and cocoa-dusted truffles, there's an almost embarrassing variety of chocolate treats. It's easy to fill up your bag quickly from the offerings on hand.

During the spring, summer, and early fall in this temperate part of the Mediterranean, the crème glacés and sorbets are particularly delicious here. Artisanally-made flavors like a deep, dark chocolate, a delectably tart passion fruit, a toasted nutty pistachio, and an aromatic raspberry-violet are so satisfying that a small cup will do...though you may not be able to resist a larger portion. And when the weather is pleasant and the Nice sky is a cloudless celestial blue, there's nothing more enjoyable than a stroll through the old town with a cup of that glace in hand, taking in the scenery.

21 Rue du Marche'
Vielle Ville de Nice
Nice, France 06300
+33 493 62 5179

Friday, February 1, 2013

ESCAPES: Tel Aviv. White Hot, Part 1

Israel has been in the news a lot lately, unfortunately for the violence happening in Gaza and beyond. But Israel as a country, and an idea, is such an amazing place -- one I think is difficult to fully understand until you've spent time there. 

I've always felt an affinity for Israel and Israelis. This started in the late '70s when I was a little girl, and we lived down the street from a house that was always lived in by Israelis, passed down from family to family as they came to America to work for one host company. Some of the kids living in that house were playmates, and some became long-term family friends (Amir, Irit and Ron, the list goes on...). I also have cousins who moved to the Negev Desert for kibbutz life, several decades ago -- I even had my bat mitzvah there on the kibbutz. Their children, now grown and married themselves, are Sabras. And suffice it to say I've dated my fair share of Israeli men. I don't know. We're simpatico. 

So when I felt the need to get away and escape some difficult times in Rome a while ago, I decided to head to the place that I knew, besides Italy, made me feel happiness in my chest, in my head, and in my heart. And not incidentally, in my belly.

Tel Aviv is one of many cities around the world known as a "white city," here for its many whitewashed buildings and Bauhaus architecture, particularly concentrated in the city center along Rothschild Boulevard. Even the view from my point of first arrival (a deluxe hotel on the beach in the north of the city) was of a cityscape with a white haze about it. Part of this was the sweltering July heat that inched above 100 degrees on most days, with excessive humidity. But this was also the overwhelming color of the city itself: sandy-white, Mediterranean in feel, and now with an actual skyline. It had been 13 years since the last time I'd visited Israel, and Tel Aviv had really changed since then.

One thing that hadn't changed much, though, was the beach, and its focal role in locals' lives. On the whole, it's amazingly well-kept and clean for a city beach. During warmer months, this is the place Tel Avivans come to cool off, relax, play matkot (beach racquet ball), and maybe grab breakfast, lunch, a snack, or a cool drink. 

And speaking of, Israelis are a casual people when it comes to most meals, and they're big on local street treats -- foods they've adapted from various cultures that comprise their population, perfected, and made their own. We're talking about falafel, hummus, shawarma, sabich, and the like. So for the uninitiated, a little background info.

Hummus is a chickpea puree made with tahina or tahini, a sesame paste also eaten on its own and frequently used as a condiment in Israeli cuisine. 
Falafel is a middle eastern deep-fried vegetable fritter, in Israel most often made from ground chickpeas, herbs and spices. They are served tucked into sandwiches in pita or lafa bread or served on their own with hummus and other dips and salads.  
Shawarma is a spit-roasted meat, often turkey or lamb in Israel, seasoned with spices and basted in its own juices as it roasts, and is shaved to order in thin slices and piled into a pita sandwich or served in a platter. 
Sabich is a simple dish of Iraqi origin, most often in pita sandwich form and containing some or all of the following ingredients: fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, tahini, chopped Israeli salad, potato, parsley, and amba (a mango pickle sauce). Most of these street foods are available in cafes, fast-food-style shops, or from street carts, and are served with a variety of homemade pickles and salads that are a wonderful contrast, and a wake-up call to the eyes and palate. 

And since Israelis tend to worship at the altar of eggplant, as I do, I must give a little space to the local preparation of a roasted or baked whole eggplant. I had it served to me on the beach -- cold, with chickpeas, tomatoes, parsley, and tahina...
or as presented to us at Abraxas North, Chef Eyal Shani's wonderful restaurant where fire and a few choice ingredients turn vegetables into something transcendent: cut in half and served warm, with burnished skin, and a swirl of tahina and tomato sauce, olive oil and egg. I can never really get enough of the eggplant dishes and their iterations, just as I can never really seem to get enough of Tel Aviv itself. Each time I go, it gets harder for me to leave. The energy of this metropolitan city, the beach side location and warm weather, the fabulous food, and not least of all the people themselves: these combine to create an irresistible pull. And I will be back, again and again.

More to come: Israel's cool city and hot restaurant scene + night life in my next Escapes: Tel Aviv.