Thursday, March 22, 2007

Savory Spain: undercurrent of a hot commodity

Calamari @ Sangria House

Sangria @ Sangria House

It was before the tell-tale of Hollywood's recent Latin infused motion picture nominees (@ the Oscars). Way before the talk of tapas and before the Gypsy Kings. It goes back farther prior Nuevo Latino really started to find its course. More than ever Spanish cooking and the authentic ingredients associated to its savory composition is making its way forward in the states.

When I was in San Francisco a few months back, I was overwhelmed with the heavy new Spanish influx in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the stream of consciousness that was buzzing in new Spanish cuisine - and it was searing, I have to say! I love that newspaper’s take on food and the arts as much as I love my beloved City by the Bay. They did a duo release on Spanish happenings; one article written to profile the recent undercurrent of Spanish ingredients and their recent availability. The second article previewing current finding in Spanish restaurants in SF. Here's a glimpse from the article: Now that you've made a permanent place in your pantry for balsamic vinegar, Arborio rice, Tuscan olive oil and other Italian essentials, you'll need to clear space for the next must-haves: the flood of fine ingredients from Spain.

They aren't all new to the West Coast -- local stores have long stocked sherry vinegar -- but the availability and prominence of first-rate Spanish groceries has skyrocketed in recent years. Imported chorizo, serrano ham, pimenton de La Vera and piquillo peppers have captured the attention of Bay Area chefs and home cooks, boosting sales at specialty retailers like the Spanish Table and

The marketplace "has changed completely," says Penelope Casas

Another find was in the LA TIMES. An article about the innovative style of a new restaurant CHICHEN ITZA. The name is taken from the Yucatan peninsula where the Mayan temples are located. It's exciting to know that the Nuevo Latino movement in Mexican cooking is re-thinking regional influences to bring out distinct flavors of the old combined with new techniques. Cooking continues to evolve with the global influences, and this style of is pretty reflective to the influx of more of a heady approach to our melting pot.

How refreshing to think past chips and salsa!

I’ll stay on course to discuss Latin inspired culinary endeavors and more so the ingredients. There is has been a trend in Spanish cuisine and also regional Mexican cooking which is afar from your atypical paella and crunchy taco. The driving force is a new undercurrent to the original trend fueled by our the accessibility of pure Spanish ingredients/global market, as well as savvy young chefs and restaurateurs taking the helm.

It’s been enjoyable to say I have had the recent opportunity to enjoy Spanish cuisine in northeast Florida. So far more so on the traditional side rather than cutting edge. We need the cutting edge though! A pleasant surprise off the frantic tourist track of St. Augustine's historic district, I found Café Spain; a small family run operation with a surprisingly European inspired menu. Many of the dishes are regionally from the capital city of Madrid, but I found the preparation simple, fresh and honest. The food wasn’t masked in heavy oils, poor ingredients (aside from the bland bread and plastic mini tubs of butter that was served), yet everything else was a simple representation of Spanish cuisine. A variety of paella was offered on the menu, as well as the Spanish cured ham Serranito and the traditional dish of Cazuela San Isidro.

Another surprise was at Sangria House. It was a warm Sunday afternoon, so we took advantage of the Florida sun (in March) to sit outside. We ordered a few tapas and an entrée. The calamari, Spanish style was lightly battered and fried just enough so the calamari was extremely tender. Sadly for this city, it was the best calamari I’ve had in Jacksonville after leaving California. It was impeccably fresh and delicate just as calamari should be and cooked in fresh oil (I can smell regurgitated oil from any restaurant a mile away - literally. If you can smell it from the parking lot – run.) The refrito we ordered was a blend of coarsely chopped eggplant, tomato, onion, green pepper, blended with olive oil, spices and apparently delicately cooked down to retain a tender yet al dente bite.

Saffron rice and chicken at Sangria House

The traditional saffron rice and chicken were okay. The chicken was ever so slightly on the dry side; but held its composure just enough. What regaled the dining experience was the selection of fresh and pure ingredients. The service was impeccable, yet comfortable. Real old school - simple and honest.

More to come later with my scheduled eat-in at newly presented The Tasting Room in St. Augustine....

I'm inspired again knowing there is a subculture in development that continues to ride the undercurrents releasing something new for us to taste. In turn, let's watch if it challenges the kitchens and palettes in northeast Florida.

Cafe Spain
193 San Marco Avenue
St. Augustine, Florida 32084

Sangria House
4320 Deerwood Lake Parkway, Suite #203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217

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