Category Archives: Food

Happy Anniversary Pata Negra, the little Jamon bar that could…

On February 8th 2017, Pata Negra turns nine Years old.

Due to the ever changing Real Estate Market of New York City, specifically the East Village, I have been reflecting over the last near decade of restaurant landscape volatility.

If I were to throw a dart in the air, I would guess that over 100 businesses have come and gone since 2008, the year I opened Pata Negra. I assure you this is an under estimation. There are still over 50 closed storefronts with “for rent” signs and I am only referring to a ten block radius around 12th street and 1st avenue.

The question is why?

Here are some thoughts.

The obvious culprit is the escalating cost of rent. As ten year leases come to term, and the cost of operating a business has increased, small businesses cannot afford to renew, and are forced to close, even successful ones. One could argue that if a business must close, it is not successful. I disagree, but more on that later.

Real estate taxes is the silent but deadly revenue killer. Our former Mayor Bloomberg instituted two 25% annual increases to generate revenue for the city. The normal increase is roughly 2%. Most commercial leases require tenants to pay a portion if not all of these taxes. For example, I went from paying $12,000.00 per year in 2008, to $36,000.00 for 2016-2017. When you have a bad month in sales and the margin of profit is $3,000.00, and that just gets forked over to the city, do the math.

 Who has the ability to pay these exorbitant taxes? You guessed it, corporate big business chains. That is Duane Reade, Rite-Aid, Walgreen’s, Banks, ATMs, Subway, Starbucks etc. There is a reason why on every block all you see are national chains or large restaurant groups who can withstand risk.

In the early 1980’s and 90’s, the East village was considered a dangerous area, ripe with homeless, drug addiction and grit, cohabiting with lifetime residents born and raised there. Artists, musicians and families made up the fabric of the East Village.

Many Residents clamored for a clean up of the streets and for viable businesses to come. This change in landscape brought an increase in property value, and actually forced many residents out. NYU is going the Columbia University route, buying up buildings and charging exorbitant rents to parents willing to pay $2,500.00 for a studio for their children while attending NYU. Management companies are snapping up buildings as well, inflating market value. As these prices continue to rise, long time residents are forced to leave, real estate property value continues to rise, and real estate taxes accordingly. The trickle down hits the small business owner.

This is significant because building a loyal returning customer base starts from within the neighborhood. When the neighborhood changes because residents leave, it is like starting all over. My customers from 2008-2014 are long gone, and even the new loyal ones who have moved in are already gone or are planning their exit.

This is the era of the millennial, and I am not going to proffer a position of neutrality. There are many facets of the millennial psyche I don’t understand, and it starts with the social media attention span. The NYC dining climate has become a combination of YELP, Eater, Grubstreet, Thrillist, Gothamist, Zagat (and NYTimes of course) recommendations. And whichever intel is shiniest and most current (as in 5 seconds ago), is where millenials eat out.  What the millennial diner is looking for is elusive to me. Keeping up with twitter, instagram, facebook, Foursquare, and Snapchat is all consuming and proven to be futile.

 In this town there is very little loyalty. It is all about what is hot and what is next hot. Too much competition and too many choices. I do believe millennials are all about value, but that is difficult to offer when operating costs are at an apogee in Manhattan. Just ask world class chefs like Wiley Dufresne, Bill Telepan and Anita Lo (to name 3 recent), chefs who have real pedigree, and continual press. Not every restaurant can be a David Chang Clone, nor should they be.

Operating a small business is like making a pie. Everyone gets to eat a slice before you do, and if you know how to operate you can keep a slice or two for yourself. If not, you don’t eat, regardless of how much effort you put into making the pie. Heck, you might even owe a couple of slices from the pie you haven’t even begun to make yet.

Survival is the new success. I came from teaching special education in the south Bronx and East Harlem to middle schoolers for 13 years to ten plus years in the restaurant industry. I have seen several businesses come and go in that span. This year I have been busy making pie, but having no slices.

I signed my lease in July of 2007. Due to permits and licenses the earliest I was allowed to open was February 2008, and so I have just a few months left on my current lease. The building has been bought and sold twice since my tenure, both times by investors from some faraway state managed by companies who have hundreds of properties in their stable to run. A rent increase is untenable. I would have to open up a casino in the basement to keep pace.

I measure my time at Pata Negra by all the relationships I have made in my travels, and the 90% of those customers who have walked through that door, some of whom have even become great friends. I even thank the 10% who I was at odds with, because they just didn’t get my business or get me or perhaps I was having a bad day and they got an earful of me. Yes I am even grateful for them. I learned something about people and myself. I thank every one of my staff who worked hard and gave of themselves, without whom Pata Negra would be without its full charm and character. My mission, to bring a little bit of Spanish culture to New York City via some jamon, cheese, and wine, was an outlandish idea back in 2008, when I was still smuggling in jamon in my suitcase. It was crazy and not profitable to open at the height of the recession. It was foolish to open a non-market driven business, not catered to the NYU clientele, like Smac or Motorino, and now the millenial populist Duck’s Eatery. My hats off to their continued success. I would have probably been better off selling fried chicken, or oysters or both (good idea). But I am satisfied with what I created. Customer by customer, each person was exposed to jamon, wine, sherry, and a taste of Spain. Not croquetas and patatas bravas and paella, rather Barcelona style recipes with personal, informative service and appreciation. I am grateful for my time here and proud of the little jamon bar that could.

 It would be nice to stick around until July, but given the current climate (January was the worst month of business since 2008), I will see how it goes month by month. 2016 was a topsy turvy year for me. So many personal challenges turned into triumphs and celebration, but Pata Negra lost steam. Blame it on the uncertainty of the times or blame me for not keeping up with times. Certainly the reasons I mentioned had something to do with it too.

 To commemorate the ninth year I have instituted rollback prices to 2008. I will be at the helm most of the time, with my familiar apron on. Come on down to raise a glass with me in celebration of a wonderful life, a little jamon, vino, a farewell hug and a smile.

Chef Mateo

 Off the top of my head here is a partial list of spots I used to frequent (primarily restos) which have closed in the East Village since 2008.  Just add to the list.

Rose’s Pizza                             10th Street Pierogi

Yaffa                                             Neptune

South Brooklyn Pizza       Northern Spy

Roberta’s Pasticceria        Leon

Terroir                                        Pearl & Ash

Alder                                          Lanza’s

Box Kite                                    Ninth Ward

12th St. Osteria                     Tinto Fino

Cafecito                                     Nonna’s Pizza

Winebar                                    Mercadito

Back Forty                               Dieci

Porchetta                                 Redhead

Blackhound                             Evelyn












Temps de Flors


Pata Negra is entering into its ninth year, and traveling to Spain to research the food and wine trends is one of the best parts of the job. I visit the wineries and producers, and in turn am able to relay to the Pata Negra public the products, the people and their distinctive stories.

This trip would prove different then all others because I finally decided to bring my fiancée, Michelle, who despite all her European and worldly travels had never set foot on Spanish soil. Now was as good a time as any.

May is a wise choice for travel to Spain, way before the legions of tourists arrive in June, way before it becomes insufferable in July, and capitalizing on the fact that most great chefs close in August for holiday.

It is a good idea to pick a major city and branch out, rather than try to drive or train throughout the whole country, so I decided to concentrate on the northeast, just below the Basque country, with Barcelona as a base. A few days in Barca, then a drive up to Costa Brava, a long stay in Cadaques, a fishing village supreme, followed by two days in Girona for the Temps de Flors (flower festival), finally returning to Barca for two days before returning home.

All three cities were ripe with great restaurants to visit, and ample opportunity for me to drink cava and priorat, and taste the lesser known wines of the Costa Brava from DO’s such as Conca de Barbera, Terra Alta, and Emporda.

The first few days in Barcelona proved fruitful and set the tone for the rest of the trip. Due to the timing of our arrival Sunday, we missed lunch and had no reservations for on the beach paella, so we walked the streets of El Born stopping at local tapas bars (el Tapeo) finishing up at Sagardi for Basque sidra and pintxos, near our hotel, Banys Oriental. Once fueled, we walked over to La Vinya del Senyor en El Born for some wine. We drank Lapola from Ribeira Sacra, Remelluri Reserva 2009 and a Bertha Brut Nature Cava. We hooked up with some New Zealanders and shared a great Ribeiro from Emilio Rojo. We were so done for the night, jet lagged and high on wine and life, so we turned in early.

The next morning my dear friend Ana, the export manager at Gramona Winery, picked us up and drove us to San Sadurni for a private visit to the bodega. We were able to walk the grounds during a breezy, sunny morning and tour the facility to learn the history of the winery and a primer on how excellent cava is fashioned. Seeing the terroir firsthand, and the diverse biodynamic culture being cultivated there was a great first experience for Michelle into the wine making world.

We had a nice lunch at Cal Blay Vinticinc, eating Catalan classics such as pa amb tomaquet and anchoas, all which paired perfectly with the leisurely tasting of La Cuvee, Imperial, and III Lustros. The wines are so great for any occasion and are the epitome of versatility. We were very touched by a surprise visit from Xavier, the owner, making an honored appearance.

After a much needed siesta, we met up for tapas at Canete, a classic tapas bar where you sit in front of the kitchen and dine on seafood delights drinking the night away. There were more anchoas de Santona, two types of gambas, ajillo and salteada, and xipirons with mongetes. We drank San Leon manzanilla sherry and a godello from Valdesil. We almost ordered a red for the secreto iberico and the sardinas, but decided to follow up this great meal at a wine bar called Bar Brutal en El Born. Before we knew it, we were several bottles in for the night, a barometer of the number of bottles consumed for the remainder of the trip.

The following day, an obligatory trip to Boqueria with counter lunch at El Ramblara, for our first berberechos, tallarines, ostras y navajas. The pimientos de padron were so good. We washed that all down with a verdejo.

That evening we had a dinner date with another dear friend, Monica and her husband Eduardo from Think Global wines, another exporter extraordinaire with a big heart and great portfolio. There was some mix up at the originally planned restaurant, and after some apologizing by the owner, some wine and rerouting, we ended up at Capete for a lovely repast. We drank godello and mencia and had a grand ole time with our first intro into peas de Maresme and arros iberic. We night capped at Gimlet, a Barca cocktail bar mainstay in El Born.

Cal Pep for lunch the next day, a bar I usually visit when in Barca. Chef Cal was not there, but the tortilla jugosa style and pimientos de pardon are still going strong. Another round of tallarines and berberetxos accompanied by the nice 2015 vintage of Muga Rosado.

We spent the afternoon marveling at La Sagrada Familia which is near completion, unlike Crazy Horse back at the States. Depending on the time of day, the stained glass windows shine a multicolored spectacle of their own.

On a tip from Ana, we got lost trying to locate Tast-Ller, a private loft restaurant speakeasy where Chef Mikal is delivering an interesting, well priced market driven small plates menu. Chef Mikal and staff make you feel right at home, within a modern setting, lovely touches and serious cooking.

Thursday rolls around, and we rent a VW golf for the short drive to Cadaques, a fishing village extraordinaire on the Costa Brava. We built in lunch time in Llafranc for a scenic view at Casamar, elegant dining on the balcony with sea vistas, our first foray into Spain’s very fine dining. The food was more Michelin styled, but very good with well composed plates and layers such as in the tartar de gambas, nyoquis de patata, and arros amn cocotxa. There was a huge temptation to consume more wine at lunch, but I knew a treacherous drive awaited us, and discretion took over.

I was rewarded for my restraint because it is indeed not a normal drive to get into Cadaques. Once we passed Figueres and Roses, the steep, narrow lane mountain curves made their presence known. Extreme concentration and caution was warranted. Exhiliration, check.

We rented a duplex from Air B n B, which was located just far enough from the buzz of the port, but approachable in a matter of minutes, complete with balcony and port view as well as fireplace. The fireplace was more useful on this trip given the inclement weather, the only thing that did not cooperate with our beach plans.

Cadaques is the loveliest of port towns, old and sinewy, terra cotta topped, breathtaking and mysterious, reminding us of Capri or Cassis, Catalan style. Pescatore satisfying meals at family run Can Rafa and Talla, with weather cooperating enough for waterside photo ops, and ample opportunity to work off some of the meals with a walk to Port Lligat, an obligatory visit to Dali’s home, and a final day Celtic adventure to Cap de Creus, the lighthouse out of a movie seemingly at the end of the earth, eating in the old tavern and enduring the fury of Tramontana (the wind).

A day trip to Figueres for the Dali museum, complete with jewels, a wonderland and feast for the eyes. We stumbled upon a three day old restaurant named Bocam which operated with the savvy of a three year joint, serving up fresh seafood and iberic arros.

The best part of Cadaques was a splendid meal at Compartir, helmed by El Bulli vets cooking home style Catalan dishes with technique and flair, an extensive wine list and well designed setting, reason enough for the treacherous trek to this fishing oasis. The menu was playful and worldly, starting with oysters and sardines and razor clams, a tuna rolled into a cannelloni, and surprising us with a shabu shabu of salmon, an amazing egg dish, arros iberic and the dessert of the trip, a coulant avellane. We could have dined here every night easily.

Bt the time we got back to Girona, flowers were a blooming for the Temps de Flors. Girona, a city just one hour north of Barcelona with a Gothic quarter, hosts an annual flower show called Temps de flors. The city is spruced with tantalizing aromatic installations strategically placed in churches, museums, on street corners, and anywhere cool. The fact that El Celler Can Roca, one of Spain’s best restaurants, if not the world, makes Girona its home as well provided extra motivation to visit.

Artists spend many hours creating the picturesque and memorable designs, some thematically and playfully driven, while others a veritable feast for the nose and eyes. It can be overwhelming at first, especially managing the flower struck crowds of old folks with cameras, but the best strategy is just to walk slowly and take it in at your pace.

Looking at so many vibrant combinations of colors and textures fuels the appetite. It is like eating art.

We had a fine paella at Alqueria, and a quixotic seafood dinner at Arros y Peix. While the food was very good at both establishments, the décor was too corporate, and the lighting was off. Something about both decors detracted from the quality of the eating experiences.

Not to fear, because we had El Celler de Can Roca on schedule, so we trained by just drinking coffee and eating pastries for much of the day, in preparation of a long multi-course extravaganza.

We arrived for an early reservation, by Spanish standards, at 8:30, and entered through the modern grassy courtyard into an even more modern restaurant. I will admit that this is my second trip to Can Roca. I will confess that on my first visit a few years back, the end of the meal is blurry in my memory. My fault, as I had too good a time at lunch at a seaside resto in San Feixols named Villa Mars, where chef and proprietor Carlos went all out during our visit, contributing to a hampered state of consciousness for dinner, and ensuing stupor by dessert and a tour of the wine cellar.

This time around I was ready, snacking only on small pastries and great coffee, courtesy of a new coffee shop a stone’s throw from La Fabrica, Christian and Amber Meier’s flagship. Espresso Mafia is white walled and gold embossed.

Modern and inviting, the white façade leads you to a coffee haven with serious intent and warm embrace. The tandem behind the machine, from Toronto and France, transplanted and happy to be in Girona are trying to effect a small shift in the stolid coffee culture existing in Spain for a very long time. Quality espresso at the right price, not just the average joe for 1.50 euros you can find anywhere. Add a delicious piece of decadent chocolate cake with cream and a bona fide addiction is born.

Aside from the very serene setting that is Can Roca, with architectural industrial glass and metal softened by grassy canopies and stark trees anchoring the center of the room, the wine list is what captivates attention. A cellar that includes so many great options, especially from Catalunya, priced in the most reasonable way, effectively inviting you to order as much as you can drink, multiple course food pairing not withstanding.

After the complimentary and settling Brut Reserva cava from Albet y Noya, made exclusively for Can Roca, Sherry first, a fine aged fino named La Panesa, from Hidalgo, complex and nutty.

A bottle of blanc de noir from Lentiscus, bready and broad with dark fruit, great for the first course connecting through to the first few courses. We followed up with a Rioja classic, Vina Tondonia Reserva blanco 1998, and some serious mencia from Raul Perez El Pecado 2007, a cult fave from Ribeira Sacra.

The degustacion (tasting menu) starts off with playful adaptations of Can Roca hits. The world menu served in a paper globe offering tastes from Japan, Thailand, China, Peru and Korea. An olive tree placed at the table where spherical olives can be plucked of the branches. Then comes a pop up bar complete with illustrations highlighting the best bar food from the suburbs of Girona: breaded squid, kidneys in sherry, escabeche mussels, salt cod with spinach, and a Campari bonbon.

Then a foray into mushrooms, with consommé and gentle egg yolks and oysters. Such unctuous combinations of velvety textures and salinity.

Which sets up a parade of seafood dishes, from red mullet with kombu, to sea anemone in prickly pear foam, langoustines, red confit skate, blackspot sea bream and the best, prawns from Palomar with head and its juices, in a seaweed veloute and phytoplankton. Simply magnificent.

There were land courses too, Iberic suckling pig, lamb with eggplant, veal oyster blade and marrow, and pigeon fermented in rice, but they all bow down to the fabulous spring peas from Maresme, adorned in liquorices and lemon.

By the time the Cuban cigar box of various confections is placed at the table, we were both ready to cry out “no mas”, but made room for Turkish perfume and Orange Colourology.

El Celler de Can Roca is a dedicated temple to the best cuisine of Spain and can be quite magical, if you allow yourself to be seduced by the magic of the experience and the quality of thirty years of experience from the Roca family.

The next morning we headed back to Barcelona and did some sightseeing.. Gaudi’s La Pedrera and Casa Batllo in Eixample are marvels of futuristic architecture even by today’s standards, and a view atop Montjuic of the city is a great way to kiss good-bye.

That night we dined at Abac on Avda. Tibidabo. The hotel restaurant is a temple to wine and chemistry in cooking. The hushed dining room is very atonal, but buoyed by the views of the exquisite garden. Many dishes were cooked tableside in elaborate flasks and double containers. The process can be quite mesmerizing. The results, very subtly flavored and inventive food, infused with great care. Abaca had the most expensive wine mark ups on the trip, discouraging but catering to their specific clientele. We drank a Zuccardi Torrontes, a fresh, crisp Argentine white and a local white that drank like an orange wine, Els Bassots 2011 from the Conca de Barbera. The red was a real treat, an old vintage Cotes de Catalanes Fernand Vaquer (1988) which was stunning.

There was another tussle over peas and prawns again. Foie gras wrapped in greens steamed in one of those fabulous science kits. But the showstopper was the chocolate magic show. Only pictures can do it true justice.

Our last day in Barca, we had lunch at Disfrutar, the sister restaurant to Compartir in Cadaques. We had high expectations because Compartir was so memorable.

Disfrutar is located in a hospital neighborhood and one would not expect it to be where it is. But once we walked in we were greeted warmly by the staff and chefs. The open kitchen was a thing of beauty. The bathrooms an oceanic wonderland.

The dining room, a transport to a beachy locale complete with clouds and blue dreams of sandy repose. The tone is very convivial, a stark contract to the past two nights suggesting that we kick back and enjoy the show.

And enjoy we did. Barbadillo Solear sherry and Raventos I Blanc Rosat Cava set the right mood that we were in for a great time. We chose the short menu (dinner later, and more on that debacle later) which still consisted of 24 courses.

I really would like to go into great detail about every course, but I will have to return soon to do it justice. has a detailed menu description of Festival (for more depth and photos)

The chefs, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casanas, headed El Bulli kitchens for years. Disfrutar is not El Bulli, but techniques and style are at play here, and we were so happy for it. By the end of the meal we were singing to one another. I believe it was a Bee Gees song, faintly heard over the gleeful din of this outstanding restaurant. Disfrutar capture the magical, elusive feeling that I got at Bulli. It cannot really match El Bulli for its locale, but excels in making you feel happy in its own right, no small feat for sometime jaded NYC customers who have dined at some of the best restaurants in the world. I left feeling both happy and sad. Happy leaving Spain with the knowledge that Disfrutar exists and I can return and sad that I can’t be in Barca on the regular to bring members of my crew to lunch at least once a month.

Beaming from the meal, we had one last resto on our docket, Tickets. I actually didn’t know what to expect, and almost didn’t care because Disfrutar imparted a lasting glow on us. I was warned by some industry folk about how commercialized Tickets was. They were underselling it. Tickets belongs in Las Vegas. Check that Atlantic City.

Tickets is just an Americanized, over stimulated version of what a tapas bar should be. It is unfortunate, because the cooking is quite good. Wines can only make the list after striking some deal with the restaurant. It seems many deals are made there for marketing purposes.

The problem arises when an industry person like myself comes in expecting a good meal, and the service goes to pot. Our server was not to blame, I suppose, when he really couldn’t help us to order wisely. His mission is to extract the most out of his customers, in terms of money. Courses came out with huge lapses in time, despite a not so full restaurant and an enormous staff. There were errors occurring at other tables too, accompanied by audible and visible in-fighting among the staff.

When our server informed us that there was an error in placing a tableside order of squab, he offered nothing to offset the error. He suggested that we order more food to wait for the mistake to be corrected.

Several minutes later a squab did turn up, but it was delivered to another couple at the bar who arrived half an hour after we did. I asked why we didn’t receive the final dish since an error was made. He replied that the order went through different channels. I tried to explain to him why his answer and rationale wasn’t an acceptable one. He just stood there. I asked to speak to a manager. No one out of that enormous staff came out. After several minutes he asked if we still wanted the dish. After twenty-five minutes had lapsed, we said yes. When it came out, we had long finished our sole bottle of cava. No more wine was even offered. Truth be told the squab was quite good. Our server then asked of he wanted dessert. It is one thing to rest on reputation, quite another to abandon basic hospitality principles. Enough was enough, so I asked for the bill, and again to speak to someone, anyone who could make decisions. No one came out.

In the end the cava was taken of the bill, and we left the server 20% gratuity. I think I had a bocadillo not too long after we returned from Dry Martini for a night cap. I am still perplexed as to the level of service at Tickets. I will say or write no more about it. Perhaps it was just an off night.   I doubt it. And at the end of the day, we had Canete, Capete, Cal Pepe, Boqueria, Casamar, Talla, Can Rafa, Tast-LLer, Can Roca, Abac, and Disfrutar which left lasting, indelible impressions.

We left Barcelona early Saturday morning and arrived to New York by midday. We trekked to our usual post flight spot, Sripraphai for Thai food in Woodside, and satisfied our craving for spicy Asian cuisine, especially after a long adventure on the food and wine trail to my favorite culinary mecca, Spain.

As my dear friend often tells me, there is no greater time than now for access to drinking the wines of the world. Every time I return to Spain, I explore another wine region that captivates my attention and adds to my palate. Even though there will never be another El Bulli, there are so many great chefs and restaurateurs doing great work and inspiring each other to showcase the best of Spain. And we wine and food travelers are the richer for it.









While I am in the kitchen…

The summer has been very busy for me into fall, what with a complete staff overhaul.  Gone are all the familiar faces at Pata Negra.  They are on to greener pastures and I wish them the best.  Things have finally stabilized, and I have been able to sneak out once or twice a week.  Not enough intel for full reviews, but here’s a sneak peak of the work in progress.


What a gorgeous space inside the revamped hotel where the thin crust pizzas are heavenly topped and the people watching is fun too.  So many great choices for wine and excellent apps make for a blockbuster hard to get into Danny Meyer winner.


Montrachet 3.0 is a comfortable restaurant with all the trimmings, with food that is made with finesse and a wine list that is very reasonable.   Octopus terrine is inspirational.  Testa is the best I’ve had in a very long time.  Lamb for two brings it home. Tribeca is back on the map again.


Alphabet City defies the real estate market once again with a small nondescript space on fifth street serving as a canvas some some good cooking, solid technique with Asian inflections.  Don’t miss the chicken liver mousse or deviled eggs.

Continue reading While I am in the kitchen…

Las Terrenas – Playa Portillo

In the restaurant business, January is generally the worst month of the year sales wise, and I often take advantage of the slow down by traveling to reset and think about strategy for the new year.  The bitter cold has not helped any, except for prompting me to head south rather than to another cold weather city.

I looked at many an island for deals, until a tip from a friend steered me toward the Dominican Republic.  My father hails from La Patria and still resides there, raising roosters for cock fights, the subject better left for a therapist than blog exploration.

I spent many summers, semana santas (holy weeks), carnivals, and Christmas vacations there, but admittedly have fallen out of love with DR since the rapid modernization and North American influences.  I prefer the third world pace, the lack of technology, no internet feeds, no fast food franchises, and especially am distressed over the amount of mopeds, traffic, tourists and the resortification of the land’s most pristine beaches.

The last time I stepped into Dominican waters was for the turn of the century, spending part time in a resort area and time at my father’s farm home near Palenque, the beach I spent so much time on as a boy.  Our family would sleep on the beach over night for several days, eating locally caught snapper and pressed fried plantains, drinking Presidente beer by day and Ron Brugal  rum by night, sleeping under a blanket of stars and moonshine.

Jetblue has direct flights to Samana, in the north, leaving just a taxi ride (albeit expensive) away from some of the island’s best beaches.  I was hooked up to a beach house rental at Residencia Portillo in Bahia Portillo, near the French and Italian habitated town of Las Terrenas, just modern enough to get to the outside world, and remote enough to be secluded and relatively untouched from it all.

The beaches are relatively private, untraveled save for the curious beachwalkers from the nearby resort, the only one in Portillo, leaving long tracts of untouched white sand and calm waters patrolled only by the adopted stray dogs who beachcomb and make friends as if out of a Disney film.

On my first day on the lounge chair a black dog came to me and gave me his paw for a shake, while his two furry friends burrowed behind my lounge seat back for the refuge of cool shade. 

The house I rented belongs to a sports agent, ranch style comfort with mosquito screens for windows, complete with pool, bbq pit and doorway to a two minute jaunt to the beach, making the decision of pool vs. beach the daily chore.  There is a wrap around porch with various sitting and lounging stations, including my favorite the mesadora (rocking chair), and an open kitchen.

What made the trip, as if all of these other factors and the 80 degree weather weren’t enough, is the availability of a Dominican cook and her sidekick who takes care of the house and any needs.  Belkis made Dominican dishes for a week straight, and the food was so delicious, it brought me back to all those meals my mother and our live in cook used to prepare for us when I was young.  The simplicity of criolla cuisine, the marriage of Spanish and European techniques with the bounty of island ingredients, cooked with love and care, is what no resort can ever produce.

The woman with great touch is named Belkis, a local who has been cooking for people at their homes for years.  I studied her techniques, how she should would add a chinola to this recipe, why she would not flour her fish, etc. and learned a great deal.

I went out with Margarito (house caretaker and our guide) on the second day to do all the shopping for the week. We hit the Euro supermarket for butter, olive oil, jamon, queso and water.  Also some rose and white wines (not a great selection) and rhums, what DR is known for.  Of to the fruit market, and for 20 bucks, I was able to but a lot of fruits and vegetables, pineapples, grapefruits, chinolsa, zapote, lechosa etc.  All made breakfast so complete and balanced.  Eggs, mangu, and onions, longaniza, coco bread, and pastries from the French Boulangerie rounded out the morning 10 am desayunos.

For lunch we made fruit shakes, from pina coladas (fresh coco and pina) to mamey and papaya shakes, and noshed on cheese and jamon.

Then 7 pm would roll around. and Belkis would arrive in her moped, in order to prepare one of many outstanding home cooked Dominican meals.

Belkis made sancocho, a kitchen sink soup, that lasted for days and seemed like a bottomless pot.  One night she cooked fresh caught lobsters, with a garlic, ginger butter sauce.  The next night snappers, fried with green plantains and rice.  One night pigeon peas, the next red beans, the next black beans. No tiring of beans and rice and plantains.  One night Margarito manned the bbq pit with entrecote, and marinated adobo chocken, and longaniza sauasgaes.  Shrimp criolla sautéed and stuffed into plantains shaped like baskets, a stew of different parts of pork products mixed with rice.  Seven days, 14 oustanding Dominican dishes.

We went out on the Friday night before our flight, and the only thing the restos had over the house was that they were situated on the beach.  We visited a wine bar called Cave across from La Bodega(Town Discotech) in la Plaza, and had some good wine listening to French driven tunes the likes you might hear out of the old Pere Pinard on Ludlow St.  Some bachata and merengue at Mosquito bar, where watching the locals get picked up by the retired cougars and tigers respectively made for some great entertainment, enough to drum up some appetite for pica pollo and chimchurri, late nite Dominican street vendor fast food to knock the edge of the rum.

There was just enough left over sancocho to get rid of any resaca (hangover), and to fortify us for the breathtaking ride into the airport gazing at mountain and ocean vistas of La Patria, panaromic snapshots that endured the delayed entry into JFK, the snowstorm, and the complete transportation disaster that awaitd us back in chilly, homey, New York City.




Low Country

Charleston, SC

If you are a foodie, or just get regular Eater blasts, it is hard to ignore all the hype Charleston has been getting with their food and wine festivals and James Beard accolades and restaurant kudos.  The same praise is bestowed on New Orleans, and is justified.  I decided to see what all of the fuss is about, and sought advice from a food critic in Charleston as to the great places to experience what I learned to be “low country” cuisine.

After a very pleasant and short two hour flight from JFK, my partner in all things wonderful and delicious, Michelle, and I headed over to Cru Café (a tip from one of my clients, Kevin), and arrived just as they opened their doors for service. From the hotel on King Street (King’s Courtyard Inn), the trail led us through the market for some shopping and by two carriage houses (of which there are many) to a charming house with a porch.  Many restos are housed in charming houses, and the word charming cannot be too redundant in describing Charleston.  Just walk through the Battery and around the southern peninsula and it will feel like an extended version of NOLA’s Garden district, with great trees and lots of peace and quiet.

The menu at Cru Café is American bistroish with a bit of the south.  We split a poblano and bell pepper soup, duck confit and onion ring arugula salad, and a play on General Tso’s chicken in a wrap with a side of creamy mashed potatoes.  The wine list is short and sweet, an international medley but all reasonably priced. We chose a 2012 Richter Riesling from the Mosel that paired well for the entire meal.   Honest cooking in a nice setting with friendly service sums it up.  Great start.

We walked through Market Street to find dessert, and ended up at Kaminsky’s for coffee and pecan pie.  The place looks like a bar save for all the baked pies and cakes in the display cake as you enter.  The slice was generous and dense, the coffee sub-par.  No off for walk-about to work it off.

There are several establishments that promote a happy hour, and it is wise to do a little research as to what is the best deal.  As we are oyster fiends, Charleston is a good place to be.  Gulf oysters can be had many places for under ten bucks a dozen.  All other coastal oysters can be as high as two bucks apiece, but still reasonable as compared to NYC.  We walked into a jam packed Pearlz a little to late, anh had to settle for some oysters and clams at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar.  The drinks were average and the shellfish fine, but overall the atmosphere was lacking and we hurried over for a serious cocktail at the Gin Joint.

Aside from being a bit too bright for a cocktail bar, the Gin Joint was a solid hit.  Pimm’s Cup, Mint Julep, Manhattan, the classics were executed well.  The house cocktails were also creative and well balanced. We could tell the patrons expected good cocktails too.  A very good sign for things to come indeed.  Patrons were not well dressed, and that was unfortunate.  Something is wrong with ladies dressed well and gentlemen in shorts, polos and tivas. We then headed to the rooftop Library bar, which yielded some lovely breezes, a must to offset the slight humidity even in late October.  The view was lovely, what with all of the low buildings, but the drinks were weak.  It started to rain, and that was our cue to exit.

We hid in the Gin Joint again until the rain died down, and made it to a 9:30 reservation at Husk unscathed.  Husk is also housed in a townhouse, but of a much larger scale.  The porch is long, and the resto sports high ceilings and different rooms.

The strategy was two glasses of white wine and a bottle of red, having felt the effects of the Gin Joint.  I found a gem, Roagna Rosso 2005 for fewer than eighty dollars, and felt that the light nebbiolo would holdup for all the dishes we planned to order. Kentuckyaki glazed Pig ears lettuce wraps with salt fermented cucumbers and peppers were crunchy and addicting.  Wood fired clams could have used a kick but were smoky and good.  More Hog Island Bay oysters with sorrel berry mignonette and preserved honey ginger please.  Then cornmeal dusted NC catfish with smoky bean Hop-n-John and Bean lacquered NC duck leg with Napa cabbage and English Peas for main courses.  There is no jealousy or animosity between NC and SC; they share their best ingredients alike.  The duck shredded like pulled pork and the catfish was cooked perfectly.  Both dishes more southern by their accompaniments, southern home cooking done at a higher level with better-sourced ingredients.  We squeezed in one desert, a buttermilk pie, and then I tapped out. No mas.

After breakfast at the inn, lunch at S.N.O.B., Slightly North of Broad.  The wine list was extensive, and we found a 1991 Richter Riesling for $74.00,  drinking fabulously.  We split two soups, butternut squash bisque and white clam chowder, both creamy and proper and excellent with the Riesling.  Then came the Maverick shrimp and grits.  The grits on most menus was Geechie Boy yellow, and this was the first exposure and wouldn’t be the last by a long shot.  The dish was accented by Tasso ham, sausage, tomatoes, green onion and garlic broth, yet somehow the grits stayed firm and true to form.  I went for the local drum fish which was seared nicely on the skin side, moist and flaky on the inside.  Before the trip I had set my mind to taste much of the local fish to get a sense of the types of fish and the respective cooking techniques.  We finished with a banana cream pie.  Who can resist?

After an extensive peregrination through the Battery, we made it back to East Bay Street for happy hour at Pearlz, which was too crowded the night before.  The bar was bustling, and we ordered many oysters and clams, but I kept returning to the peel and eat shrimp, jumbo sized and dusted with Old Bay seasoning.  After a medley of pretty decent cocktails it was time for a siesta, which I try to plan on every trip between happy hours and late dinner reservations.

This time we took a cab to The Grocery as it is located just off Upper King Street.  We had been walking to every place, but did not want to run past 10 pm, and in addition it was raining again, and Charleston streets do not hold up well in the rain.  The Grocery was the kind of place you would find in NOLA, with lots of space, a separate bar area, open kitchen, reclaimed wood and interspersed with metal etc.  When you enter an old used vault safe greets you, and you like the vibe instantly.   The Firehouse is located just across the street, but it was the police who gave us a disco show pulling over a cab going the wrong way on a one-way street.

We had some fried oysters on top of deviled egg cream.  I asked our server Walt for some bread to sop up the remnants.  He told me that was the “country” thing to do.

The two cocktails we ordered were delicious, mine a dirty tomato martini, zingy and tangy, the other all rhubarb and herb like.  I found a nice bottle of dry furmint form Heidi Schlock, a female winemaker, and I do adore a feminine touch in my wines.  My partner Michelle was feeling a bit stuffed, (Why?), and barely got through her scallops and pork belly (clean-up hitter to the rescue), and I went out on a limb and ordered the market fish whole snapper for two for myself.  The fish was wood roasted and so fat and fleshy I thought it was an oversized puffer fish.  I put that dish down inspiring awe form Walt, who said I was “low country” having completed that feat.  No dessert, onto Upper King Street, where we found out is where the hip bars and college kids hang out, a sort of mixed blessing.  Nothing against south of the market and East bay St. restaurant row, but the clientele is a lot of old money, and the average age is the NY state speed limit.

Upper King was crowded as forecasted, even with the rain keeping the masses at bay.  We stopped into the Cocktail Club, which was more nightclub than cocktail, and promptly walked out.  We caught a drink at the Belmont Lounge with a sleek Miami sort of vibe.  The drinks were proper but the clients were University, so we moved the party to Rarebit, straight out of Williamsburg. It too was a bit clubby, but the music was groovy and the drinks were rolling.  We ended up at brunch here the next day for chicken and waffles.

Perhaps the best of the seafood places was The Ordinary, also on Upper King, which looked like it used o be an old bank.  High vaulted ceilings and a tasteful maritime design splits the restaurant in two, with replica game fish, wooden mermaids and underwater diorama.  The bar yields twice as much room as is necessary, and yet when all of the thoughtfully crafted seafood plates pile up you become grateful.  A battery of pristine oysters at NYC prices makes me feel at home.  A civilized dirty Plymouth Martini with extra olives made me feel like it was Saturday night.  The selection included Blackberry Point, meaty Belons, fab Honeysuckles, Beach Blondes, Otter Island, and Caper Blades, the elixirs of the ocean.  The local little necks were no second fiddle either.  P & E Gulf shrimp was meaty and addicting. But the show stopped when the razor clams hit the bar, lightly poached and plucked from its shell, presented in a glass bowl above decorative seaweed and ice, mixed to be a ceviche with fennel, cilantro, green apple, jalapeno and lime.  We ordered it twice and became the dish’s spokesperson for the bar.  We topped it all with an oyster slider, cornmeal crusted with deviled egg cream, a perfect bite.  All the while the bartender was concocting the perfect daiquiri, the straight up version with three simple ingredients of Angostura rum, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup.  What a revelation.  We would have stayed if it were not for a 9:30 res at FIG, who happens to be partners with The Ordinary.

After another siesta and a quick change, we walked to FIG (very close to inn).  It is housed in a regular setting rather than a house.  The bar was bustling and the room very contemporary with warm earthy tones.  However, the artwork seemed out of place, and the light fixtures gaudy.  Only SNOB was more disjointly designed, and we were afraid the food might be dated.  Au contraire, with excellent service and advice from our server Ashley, we had two great cocktails from the make your own Negroni list, and went to town. Painted Hills Beef carne cruda, razor clams, Keegan-Fillion Farms chicken liver pate to open things up.  Then the oft ordered ethereal ricotta gnocchi and Appalachian Highlands Lamb Bolognese and a John’s Island tomato tarte tatin.   An enormous portion of Eden Farms pork schnitzel with heirloom tomato farotto was demolished.  All washed down with a Vajra Rosso, which was being given away for sub forty dollars.  Again we wish we had room for more.  We squeezed in a Meyer Lemon Pudding with NC blackberries and aged balsamic for sweets, and glad that we did.

Pre-flight the next day we hiked out to the Butcher and Bee, a sandwich shop that is worth any trek.  Housed in a garage, the lovely ladies just serve finely crafted sandwiches.  I was upset not to be able to try the banh mi, as it is a nighttime option (they are open until 3 am), but was extremely pleased with the roast beef sandwich and the BBQ beef and cheddar.  No Po boys here, but it the quality and creativity gives Nola’s Parkway tavern a run for its money.

Overall, I was impressed with the dining scene in Charleston.  I would like to explore the outer Island for some down low country cuisine, some more BBQ and fried chicken, and some island fishing.  It was great to see the quality of the cocktails, the composition and selections offered on the wine lists, and the local sourcing for ingredients.  I did find it strange that almost no one dressed up to go out, ala Seattle.  Most men wore the standard uniform of a plaid or checked shirt (gingham) and a pair of jeans.  The ladies’ fashion was all department store driven.  Come on, with cooking this good, show some class.

The only other comment I will make is a social one.  There was a definite division of patrons as it refers to age from Upper King to Lower King Street.  I witnessed a much older crowd on Lower King and a mixed and often university crowd on Upper King.  And, as a person of color, I rarely saw any person of color dining out or in the cocktail clubs I visited.  Even the kitchen staffs were primarily Caucasian, at least on appearance.  I did not feel segregated, and received great service by all accounted, but coming form New York it felt a bit strange to me.  I just wondered where all the people of color were dining and why they hadn’t been spotted at these places where I thought there was some solid cooking going down.

Ultimately what I take from Charleston, are people who are passionate about food and beverage as a way of life, and when you ask for extra biscuits to sop up the sauce, that is downright low country.