Sunday, June 04, 2006

Bites, May 2006 - Part II

My New York dining highlight of the month was my first visit to Las Ramblas, a newish tapas bar named for Barcelona’s famed pedestrian boulevard. It’s an almost microscopic place, occupying the W. 4th Street storefront that was, for many years, home to The Bagel. Utilizing bar tables and stools to make the most of the tiny space, it’s not really a place that lends itself to a languorous dining experience, which is too bad, because it would be great to savor a number of the offerings over a leisurely evening of drinking.

My usual rule of thumb for tapas, when making a dinner of it, is three plates per person, so my friend and I ordered six at first, three from the main menu and three from the specials board. The specials tend to be higher-priced than most of the main menu items, at about $9-12 each. The food was so good that we had to go for a seventh item before we left. With drinks, it worked out to over $50 per person (with tip), but one can probably keep it to $35 without too much trouble.

Every item was a winner, which is a not-too-frequent occurrence. Each dish had very particular, bold flavors, and the chef has clearly paid great attention to seasonings and taste combinations. Nothing was timid, nothing was heavy-handed.

The specials:

Serrano ham-wrapped monkfish: delicately flavored little filets, served atop a lentil salad that had a prominent, but not overwhelming, vinegar presence. The combination worked.

Morcilla salteado (sauteed morcilla): two kinds of blood sausage (one with rice), rich and flavorful without being over-salty.

The sliced duck breast special was served with a peach/muscatel sauce that was fairly sweet, but not cloying. It was a delicate balance, and in lesser hands it could easily have gone over the edge.

From the menu:

Banderillas con chorizo de pato: mini-skewers of duck sausage, with quail egg & pearl onion. Simple & tasty. I should have asked where the sausages (if not home-made) could be procured.

Patatas bravas: this version of Spanish fried potatoes with spicy smoked paprika and aioli is the best I've had in NY since the demise of Helena's on Lafayette St. This is a ubiquitous tapas bar item in Spain, but the best version, and easily the best fast food I’ve ever eaten, can be found at the multi-location Las Bravas chain in Madrid. Las Bravas has a patented (and highly addictive) secret sauce that they pump onto the potatoes as well as skewered meats.

Mushrooms with sherry & almonds: The aromatic sherry flavor, marrying with garlic, highlighted the earthy mushroom taste, the overall effect being parallel, compatible taste sensations.

We could have stopped after six plates, but as I mentioned above the food was too good to quit, so for our "dessert" we ordered grilled octopus, which was served with purple potatoes. The different-than-usual potatoes were a nice touch, the octopus tender and delicious.

* * *

I also had my first vatapá, a traditional Afro-Brazilian dish from Bahia. The restaurant was Emporium Brasil, on W. 46th Street, a/k/a Little Brazil. There are a number of Brazilian restaurants on the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, but Emporium Brasil seems to have the best reputation. Vatapá is a very rich dish, described on the menu as: A Puree of Bread Crumbs & Smoked Shrimp, Peanuts, Cashew Nuts, Flavored with Coconut Milk & Palm Oil. The day I ordered this dish was within my window of opportunity: the day after my annual physical, but before I would get my cholesterol test results.

I think I first learned about vatapá from the song of the same name by Dorival Caymmi, the great Brazilian composer-lyricist whose music is a veritable encyclopedia of Bahian culture. The song is a recipe set to music:

Quem quisé vatapá - ô
que procure fazê:
Primeiro o fubá,
Depois o dendê,
Procure uma nega baiana - ô
Que saiba - mexê
Que saiba - mexê
Que saiba - mexê

Bota castanha de caju
- Um bocadinho mais.
- Um bocadinho mais.

Amendoim, camarão, rala o coco
Na hora de machucar
Sal com gengibre e cebola, Iaiá...

If you want vatapá –– ô
Try to make it like so:
First add the corn meal,
Then the African palm oil,
Look for a black woman from
Bahia –– ô
That can - stir
That can - stir
That can - stir

Add cashew nuts
A little bit more
Red pepper
A little bit more

Add peanuts, shrimp and grate
the coconut
Then mix it all together
Finally, season it with salt,
ginger and onions, Yayá! ...

My vatapá was tasty, but something seemed to be missing. It was tamer than I had imagined it, not the culinary samba I was expecting, and it definitely needed the malagueta pepper sauce they served on the side. Perhaps they didn’t have the requisite black woman from Bahia in the kitchen.

Stay tuned for Bay Area & Santa Fe bites, later this month.

Las Ramblas on UrbanspoonEmporium Brasil on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recall the vatapa I ate in Rio vividly (with pleasure), and that was 26 years ago come August.

6:33 PM  

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