Monday, February 1, 2016

RESTAURANT REVIEWS: SANTAELLA -- San Juan, Puerto Rico

There's nothing I like better than a warm-weather escape when it's absolutely frigid back home. And the past few years, my timing was perfect, as I fled from snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures. My latest escape? Puerto Rico, an island so proximate to New York that I'm truly surprised it took me so long to finally make it there!

And what an island it is. Or, at least, the north coast and San Juan, where we spent a fabulous five days. The city of San Juan is like an even-more-Latin Miami, and then Old San Juan takes you back to colonial Spain, even parts of Southern Sicily can be found in the wrought iron balconies on the candy-colored buildings, and the cobblestone streets. And after the holidays, it's still got a very festive vibe. So, we did the beach retreat, the city room on the shore, and ventured into various parts near and far for some amazingly good meals.

The highlight of our dining experiences, however, was clear: Santaella, a creation of local chef José Santaella. With stints a Le Bernardin in New York and Gary Danko in San Francisco -- two of America's best restaurants, hands-down -- the chef's top-notch pedigree is undisputed. Santaella's reverence for seafood certainly stems from his time living on a tropical island, and his urban chef stints surely cemented his love for fresh fish in all its forms. At Santaella restaurant, located in an offbeat neighborhood near the central market in San Juan, the modern dining room is an urban tropical escape. The well-informed staff are warm and helpful, never imposing. The vibe of the place makes you love it even before your first sip of a delicious libation, like a Sandia mojito (with fresh watermelon), or a tamarind margarita. Moving on, the menu is divided into Nibbles, Specials, Salads, "Barely Touched" (this is crudo and ceviche), and Main Courses, then Desserts. This food is fun, vivacious, expertly prepared, and really delicious, AND, the portions are quite generous.

We started with the Hawaiian Waho Ono ceviche, with tropical juices, radishes, sweet potato, and cucumber with tortilla crisp strips. This was everything a tuna ceviche should be -- bright, happy, crispiness of varying degrees, and a gorgeous meaty tuna barely "cooked" by tart-sweet tropical fruit juices. Seriously yum, and very light. This was good because we ordered a lot of food. 
We had the house specialty empanadas that evening, a mix of meat and vegetables like mushrooms and peas. These were expertly prepared and delicious, and not at all bland like some empanadas can be. All in, a nice counterpart to the light tuna ceviche.

Moving on, we ordered another delicious seafood "crudo"-type dish, the "Japanese Crazy Salad," as it was dubbed. This was a spicy crabmeat salad (cold) layered with seaweed salad and avocado, on top of a plantain fritter as large and round as a personal pan pizza. It was a vibrant mish-mash of tastes and textures, reminiscent of sushi restaurant flavors but more interesting...and a lot of fun.
After a delicious salad and a few croquettes of the day, we finished up the savory part of our meal with a casserole of baby octopus, chorizo and chickpeas with sherry. The servers had warned us that this portion was not for the faint of heart, but since we were going through our meal grazing and sharing everything, tapas-style (and since I was with The Big Guy, who was never daunted by a plate of food), we laughed at the suggestion that something might be, well, too much. But this was a healthy portion. Very healthy. And the dish itself, with a huge nod to the Spanish ancestry of Puerto Rico, was rich and meaty and delicious. We were eating an early dinner before heading to the airport to catch our late flight back to New York City, so we definitely wanted to be satisfied, but not uncomfortably overstuffed. This was our last meal in Puerto Rico, however, so we decided to split a dessert because: vacation!

The coconut everything on this tropical island made me a very happy camper. So we decided on a signature Santaella dessert, the coconut and almond custard with a delicious coconut ice cream. The custard tart was very hot, its caramelized crispy almond cover shattering as we dug our spoons into the warm creamy sweetness underneath. The ice cream was the cool counterpoint to the creme brulee -- essentially this was baked and frozen versions of the same intensely flavored coconut custard, sharing a plate. After the meal, I inquired about purchasing the cookbook I'd seen on display at the hostess stand when we came in, as I was a chef and first-timer to Puerto Rico. With the same courteous manners and smiling service we'd enjoyed all evening, our waiter offered to get chef to personalize the cookbook, signed and dedicated to me. It was thoughtful and sweet, and really, what more could I ask for? It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip, our first but certainly not our last jaunt to this island nation just a hop, skip, and a brief plane ride away from my home back in the cold of a New York winter. 


SANTAELLA
219 Calle Canals
La Placita de Santurce
San Juan, PR 00907
Tel: +1 (787) 725-1611
 

Monday, January 25, 2016

QUICK BITE: Bone Broth, Your Way

It's the dead of winter, and the entire east coast has just been hit with a major blizzard. This past weekend was, as they say, perfect "cooking project" weather. And it still is: perfect for a good, long simmer of beef bones thick with marrow on the stove, perfuming the air of your home and warming your kitchen. And then, once this broth is made, you can do so much with it. It's great just as is, of course. Much has been made of a "bone broth" revolution of sorts. Really, this is just broth, stock, whatever your want to call it -- that's been the base of soup and sauce recipes for ages. 

Some say to roast the bones and veggies in the oven first; I usually like to keep in uncomplicated when cooking this at home, and just use one pot -- a great big soup pot that's wide enough so that you can first roast the beef bones in one layer. I use a mix of marrow bones and some with a little meat on them, like short ribs or oxtail. I encourage a little caramelization with some tomato concentrate on top of the bones, and roast them on the stovetop or oven first until browned. Then I add the the carrots, onions, and celery (leeks and shallots if you're feeling it), along with lots of water, peppercorns, and a bay leaf. And really, that's it. This needs to simmer slow and low for as few as 6 hours, and as many as 24. Skim the ft occasionally from the top, and when it's done, strain it, cool it down and then place in storage containers in the fridge to completely cool overnight. This allows you to easily scrape the fat off the top the next day.


Now, the fun part. of course, you can sip the beef broth as is, even in a mug like the most restorative cup of coffee and lunch, combined. But the great thing about making a huge potload of beef broth is getting creative with it! You can freeze some in ice cube trays and then store in a ziploc bag in the freezer for use in sauces and individual servings later on. You can add some noodles and some vegetables and have a beef noodle soup. You can caramelize a pan full of sliced onions, sprinkle with flour, and add the broth for a wonderful French onion soup (top with a baguette slice and gruyere cheese for the real deal!). 


Or, make a wonderful, healthy, super-tasty Vietnamese-inspired version, like you see here. I took the basic beef broth and simmered it with a bit of soy sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, pineapple chunks, chopped lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, star anise, szechuan peppercorns, coriander seed, and chili pepper. The broth was infused with all of these warm and spicy notes over the course of about 2 hours.
Just before serving, I added some rice noodles, thinly-sliced bok choy, fresh cilantro and mint, a healthy squeeze of lime juice, and a bit of sriracha sauce, both blended in and drizzled on top. This is an incredibly fortifying soup-as-meal that's great both in cold weather and in hot. It's both edifying and refreshing. And it's utterly satisfying. You can create your own variations on this Asian noodle soup theme: add some red or green curry paste, a protein of choice, any kind of greens, herbs, citrus, spices. Have fun playing with your food! Keep warm, and keep cooking...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

FOOD PORN: A LOOK BACK 2015 (Catering Edition)



Here we are in 2016 (can you believe it?!), and once again, the final month of the year proved to be a happily hectic one for Blu Aubergine. I managed to keep up to some degree with blogging, but never as much as I'd like. 

So here, now, I thought I'd start the new year off with something different than what's currently clogging your inbox. I'll hold off on the healthy eating and new year resolution diets and soup recipes (though those are coming!) to reflect on some of the more drool-worthy creations I served to my clients over the past year. This is a multi-part posting under the Blu Aubergine blog category FOOD PORN that I started last year. It's simply photos of the more popular and pretty dishes I made in 2015 -- trolling for culinary salivary stimulation. Yes, I'm still unapologetic.

We catered a sushi-themed birthday party with a Japanese buffet -- all during a snowstorm! 

 
Farm-fresh crudite with my famous hummus is always a hit.

Oven-roasted heirloom cherry tomatoes atop herb-crusted goat cheese: one of many varieties of crostini in our catering repertoire.

Scallop ceviche: spicy, fresh, and light, served with crispy tortilla chips.
A modern version of Oysters Rockefeller...
Home-cured salmon and goat cheese with red onion on baguette crisps: more crostini!
Roasted red pepper soup with parmigiano croutons -- Cheese and salumi platter



Crostini topped with London broil and chimichurri; Crostini with ricotta and prosciutto, artichoke spread, and tomato and basil.




We catered a lovely baby shower luncheon, with a Peter Rabbit theme -- perfect for an early springtime afternoon with the ladies.
Baby carrot cakes were on-theme and the perfect bite for those with a sweet tooth.
And mini strawberry-rhubarb pies were an indulgence that most party-goers couldn't resist!
















We catered the seemingly impossible: a Passover Seder and surprise birthday party for 30 people in a small, newly renovated, unoccupied apartment (with a kitchen that was installed just hours before the event!)

The seder had influences both classic Ashkenazi (brisket) and Mediterranean (Italian rosemary and garlic-stuffed turkey breast in a white wine sauce)...

...as well as Sephardic sides like fattoush made with matzoh instead of pita bread, and Moroccan-spiced potato salad with green olives, preserved lemon, and sumac...














...Plus desserts that included my famous flourless chocolate cake with fresh strawberry sauce, flourless apple tart, and biscotti and macarons.













It was also a great year for Blu Aubergine and fun pop-ups. We worked with No Satar/Air Circulation Studios to create a friendly, relaxed Roman Easter-themed feast!


Platters of Rigatoni all'amatriciana
Risotto with asparagus, parmigiano, and crispy prosciutto


And classic saltimbocca alla romana were among the offerings...













Penthouse birthday bash on the Bowery for 75 people.
My culinary contribution to my parents' 50th wedding anniversary party in a south Florida restaurant: the cake! I decided on a family favorite, called a shadow cake: 4 layers of chocolate and golden cakes with chocolate buttercream, topped with white buttercream and chocolate ganache to cover (and a golden heart on top, for the 50th goolden anniversary, of course!).  
 Another amazing pop-up I did was in conjunction with Filigree Suppers, and the theme was famous women in culture. Each course was inspired by a fabulous female, from Dorothy Parker to Josephine Baker, Georgia O'Keeffe to Julia Child, Chanel to Pavlova. It was a wonderful evening!

 






Southwestern sunset-hued salads, in celebration of Georgia O'Keeffee

Deconstructed Boeuf Bourguignon, in honor of Julia Child. And a seared scallop on squid ink couscous, with pickled cauliflower and preserved lemon sauce, in salute to Josephine Baker.

 

A sweet ending: Pavlovas, the meringue, cream, and fruit dessert created in honor of the ballerina.

Holiday season highlights included a southern-themed holiday dinner party in a 30,000 square foot artist's studio on the Brooklyn waterfront...


The table was gorgeous and the food, including creole shrimp, sweet potato casserole with caramelized onions and goat cheese, roasted pork loin with peach-cranberry mostarda, and cajun brussels sprouts and cabbage slaw, exuded southern charm.
 
There were other holiday parties, of course: cocktail gatherings downtown and uptown...with brie en croute, drizzled honey, nuts and dried fruit, smoked salmon with horseradish cream on endive leaves... 
The sweet ending to the year? Mini sweet potato cupcakes with maple buttercream...

Red fruit tart with mascarpone-ginger cream...whole...


And in slices, with a spiced citrus sauce....

















And a yule log, of course, to end the year on a festive holiday note!