review: subtle innovation…
You know you’re going to have a good time at a restaurant when you’re greeted by a half-ton bronze pig.
At the whiff of good food, my name becomes Achilles and a fine selection of cheeses, especially, goes straight for my heels. That’s how Jose Garces got me in a gluttonous bind at Amada in late July.
We were actually trying to eat light. We were having a big dinner at Zahav later. Oh well…
The quality of the ingredients – as evidenced by an immensely fresh “Ensalade Verde” [dressed greens on green: avocado, favas, and green beans ($9)] – coupled with simple, yet perfect treatments and beautiful presentations made the experience of dining at Amada rewarding. The creative culinary twists – like pairing chocolate-hazelnut puree with a funky cow’s milk cheese (Cadi Urgelia from the Spanish Pyranees) – made Garces’s food thrilling.
Amada is “tapas reinvented.” As the restaurant’s website aptly states, “Amada is not a typical, trendy tapas restaurant. It is something else entirely. Amada serves authentic Spanish tapas based on the earthy Mediterranean flavors that have long been the passion and expertise of founder and executive chef, Jose Garces – but Chef Garces goes beyond tradition, interpreting centuries-old tapas recipies [sic].”
Instead of leaving octopus well enough on its own after boiling, like the traditional method of making Pulpo a la Gallega ($11), Garces throws the coins of cross-cut tentacles in a screeching hot skillet just long enough for the edges to form a crisp, lacy skirt. He dusts them with paprika and scatters them on a wooden plate along with sliced fingerling potatoes. With a squeeze of fresh lemon, it’s great.
Our server (and the kitchen) was very accommodating, allowing us to deviate from the less extensive lunch menu and select a few items from the restaurant’s dinner menu. The service was pleasantly laid-back, attentive, and knowledgeable. I especially commend the staff for its wonderful sense of pacing. We asked that dishes be sent out in progression, and at no point was our table over-crowded.
Never mind that the plate of charcuteria ($12) was picture-perfect – Peppery salchichon, spicy-sweet chorizo Pamplona, and waxy Serrano all thinly sliced and served with garnishes and slices of baguette. Or that the Escalivada, a stretch of silken grilled vegetables bathing in fruity olive oil, was in fine form.
I want to talk more about the cheeses.
I’m always on the look-out for an interesting selection of cheeses. While I get that (in spades) at high-end places like Picholine, rarely do such interesting and diverse selections appear in more casual settings.
Not only does Amada have a fine selection of region-specific cheeses, Garces pairs them with the most amazing condiments. As mentioned above, a pungent cow’s milk cheese, Cadi Urgelia, was paired with the equivalent of home-made Nutella. You wouldn’t think the two would taste good together, but I found the coupling wildly successful – the toasted hazelnut and funkiness in the cheese finding uncommonly common ground. To a lesser degree, the Aragones, which was paired with golden raisins soaking in a “white Sangria honey,” was also very successful. And Queso de Cabra, a fresh goat’s milk cheese, took on a dessert-like quality with the help of an accompanying strawberry jam made with balsamic vinegar.
But the cheeses were just the tip of the iceberg.
There was a wonderfully fragrant plate of Setas perfumed with truffle oil ($14). These weren’t the crisped, griddled fans of oyster mushrooms I was expecting. Rather, it was a silky assortment of wild mushrooms – oysters, beech, shiitake, and what appeared to be cuts of king oyster mushrooms. There were also incredibly tender morsels of Chiporones a la Planca ($5), caps and tentacles, strewn along a strip of white enamel dappled with parsley oil. As with the octopus, both the mushrooms and squid benefited from a last-minute inoculation of fresh lemon.
Habas a la Catalana
And there was a comforting bowl of Habas a la Catalana ($8), probably better suited to a wintry night than a balmy late-summer lunch. Nevertheless, the hearty heap of perfectly cooked favas and giant white lima beans in a warm ham-infused broth was appreciated with gusto.
The “Patatas Bravas” at Amada weren’t the chunks and wedges I’m used to seeing ($4). These baton-cut sticks weren’t afraid of being more American in form and, as a result, managed to achieve crispness not common to traditional patatas bravas. As alluring as the structure of these patatas was, these zippy fries weren’t anything particularly memorable, not aided much, either, by the spicy paprika-spiked aioli, which was liberally drizzled over the heap.
By comparison, that same aioli was more successfully used to enhance two crab-stuffed piquillo peppers ($12) served in a cazuela. The smoldering, silky, and sweet peppers, bulging with a molten, creamy mix of crab – not unlike thick brandade – were sparingly topped and spiced with the paprika sauce and flocked with crisp, slivered almonds.
If there was one disappointment, it was the Lamb Chops a la Plancha ($14). Two to an order, these Frenched lollipops were slightly overcooked for my taste and slightly boring. I’ll also note that none of the three desserts available raised enough curiosity to warrant a venture in that direction – not that Spanish desserts (Spanish desserts “reinvented” no less) ever really excite me. Flan is (usually just) flan is (usually just) flan no matter how much one tries to über-flan flan. And rice pudding is (usually just) rice pudding is (usually just) rice pudding no matter how much one tries to über-rice pudding rice pudding. We headed to Capogiro afterward and were, blissfully, none the wiser.
As early as late 2005, shortly after Amada first opened, I was already receiving enthusiastic missives about the restaurant from fanatic friends. Although the uniqueness of the restaurant has undoubtedly diminished over the past three years, due to an invasion of multifarious tapas-pedaling palaces and dives, I’m still excited by what Garces offers at Amada.
A Starr Restaurant Organization vet, Garces has since branded his own success with other “reinvented” cuisines in other reinvented settings. Garces opened Tinto, a Basque-minded wine bar, across town in February of 2007. This year, 2008, has been particularly busy: he returned to his childhood home when he opened Mercat a la Planxa, a Barcelona-style tapas restaurant, in Chicago in March, and expanded his Philadelphia empire in July with Distrito, a celebration of Mexico City. If all goes as planned, by January of next year, the “Latin Emeril” will have fathered five eateries with the addition of Chifa, a Peruvian-Chinese restaurant. (There’s a great article about Garces on p. 226 of the September/October 2008 issue of Philadelphia Style.)
Although socializing is normally the main sport of “small plate” dining, the simple goodness of the food at Amada begs one to pause and consider it before proceeding. At our table, this was a welcomed distraction.
The level of execution of the food at Amada was superb, the ingredients were incredibly fresh, and the inventiveness of the cuisine – like the “White Sangria,” a refreshing citrus-kissed white wine nectar perfumed with rosemary, originally created by Ms. Katie Loeb, Philadelphia’s bartendrix extraordinaire* – managed to escape the cheapened, hackneyed stab at “different” that has infected so many of these types of establishments. Amada practices subtle innovation while leaving much – the most important parts – of the traditional charm of Spanish cuisine intact.
Although I can’t say that the awkwardly combined storefronts which comprise Amada’s facade is particularly attractive, the interior has a rustic austerity that I find particularly agreeable. The dining area is quite open, and given the wood floors, wood cabinetry, and sparse upholstery, I can see how, during peak hours, the volume could be quite loud, as some have forewarned.
I can easily justify return visits to Amada – if not to try more of the menu, or for more setas, more octopus, or much, much more cheese – for the opportunity to drag three others along to experience the “Cochinillo Asado,” a whole, roasted suckling pig served with an assortment of side dishes ($32 per person). Heck, I’d return just to sit at the bar and watch them slice ham on that beautiful red-enameled jamon-slicer (I’m not sure if it was a Berkel, but it looked like one).
Executive Chef and Owner Jose Garces
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106
* Although Ms. Loeb helped design Amada’s beverage program, she has since moved on to other endeavors, leaving a sweet and tasty trail of drinks, mixed and otherwise, in her wake.