Monday, May 14, 2012

Tapas c/o Jamonera

In April at some point, or even late March, I sent out an email to some of my Philly folks asking if anyone had interest in going to a Santigold show with me in early May. Tuffy Winky (formerly BC) responded with a resounding yes. I suggested that we have dinner before the show and in the end we decided on Jamonera, which was on the list. It will come to no one's surprise that I ended up in the neighborhood early. I chose to kill a few minutes looking in at the Open House Store, which is owned and operated by the same business partnership as Jamonera and Barbuzzo. Basically, the duo has a lockdown on most of the block of 13th Street between Chesnut and Sansom. The store was chock full of cute things you couldn't imagine ever ending up at Q Mart, but still struck me as just a lot of stuff (some of which I'm sure I'd covet far more if I owned a house with the room for such things). On the other hand, who pays $14 for a chicken stapler? Not me.

In any event, when I finished killing time I entered Jamonera through its imposing black door and found myself face to face with a guy standing in the entry way. We made eye contact, but I wasn't quite sure whether he was a patron waiting for someone, or a host. This would have been easier to determine if, you know, he had said something along the lines of "Welcome to Jamonera, how can I help you?" but he didn't do that, which then made me feel awkward about telling him I had a reservation. It was weird and not the most auspicious of beginnings, I must say. Once seated, I took a look at the cocktail list while I waited for Tuffy. I had read that their vermouth cocktails were a nice change of pace, so when the server came up and asked if I'd like anything to drink, I went with the "Blanco Especial,"  which was a Bodegas Montana-Perucchi Vermouth "served in a traditional vermuteria style" with chamomile, lemon verbena, ginger and mint. Definitely a change of pace from many a Philadelphia cocktail. Sweet, almost cloyingly so if not for the balance of the verbena and lemon. I didn't want another, but I'm glad I gave it a go. Once Tuffy Winky arrived she ordered the Bizet,  which sounded like it was going to be too sweet (vodka, passion fruit, clementine, fresh tyme), but was actually just right and refreshing.
Tuffy Winky's a good sport about my craziness when it comes to food, and gave me a lot of freedom when suggesting the meal that we would enjoy. I'm not sure if I ended up making the best decisions or not. The first two things that arrived were the shishito peppers with a little salt and perhaps another slight accompaniment. I liked the blistered skin and the taste of the peppers on their own, but Tuffy Winky preferred them with a dose of the restaurant's sherry vinegar hot sauce. The presentation was simple, but appealing.
At the same time we also had the papa frita: crispy skin potato, wood smoked garlic aioli and brava salt. They were good and crispy, and the potato chunks were nicely proportioned, but somehow I wasn't overawed. It was dish that, like the peppers, seemed to rely on its simplicity and the quality of its minimal ingredients. In this case there wasn't enough pizazz. I'm not sure what was missing. Not salt. Maybe a little more of the aioli? Or perhaps a little more garlic zest to the aioli?
I knew that Tuffy Winky isn't a fan of fish, but I still wanted to check out the "Wedding of Anchoas," one Cantabrian anchovy, one Boquerone with charred peppers, goat cheese and arbequina olive oil.This may actually have been my favorite dish of the night. Actually, it was. No 'may' about it.  The contrast between the straight up fishiness of anchovy compared to the slightly more mellow flavor of the boquerone was an interesting one, and the cheese and pepper foundation grounded the difference between them quite nicely. This was the best realized dish of the evening.
We also ordered the ham croquetas, which I'm not sure were the same as the online menu's description, which is: iberico ham croquetas with horseradish crema, pickled mustard seed and ham fat. Ours seemed to have a little piece of onion, some kind of pepper, and a waxy/honey quality to them. I've gotta say that while the first half of one's first bite was quite enjoyable (nice and hot, a little salty), the finish that these little guys left was not as enjoyable. There was a waxiness (from the honey?) that coated both of our mouths and the taste that went with that coating was not a pleasant one nor was it easy to part with...cleansing one's palate of a waxy compound is a challenge. If the wedding was a 'hit,' then these were a definite 'miss.'
You'll note that I chose to take photographs with a flash but with a funny shutter speed. I like the look of the photos, but they're definitely a little 'moody.' Next up was the Foie y Setas, seared foie gras with wild mushrooms, amontillado sherry, maple buttered toast and roasted chesnuts. This was Tuffy's first foie! I think she liked it, which was a relief. The size of the foie was fair, given the $12 price. The mushrooms and the sweeter maple notes were earthy and successful contributors to the overall presentation. This was a good dish, not astounding, but not disappointing either.
When I went to Barbuzzo with Mr. Ass a while back (a full year and a month back, actually) we ordered the meatballs. Here, too, meatballs (albondigas) were on the menu...but I can't find them on the online version, so I can't tell you exactly what they consisted of. That said, they were extremely reminiscent of the Barbuzzo balls: very tasty but not as complex as you might expect.  During our meal we also enjoyed glasses of red wine...but I'm not sure the online list mirrors the choices we made.
So my overall feeling about this visit was so-so. While the host's opening left me feeling strange, our actual server's attitude and demeanor were great. She answered questions, suggested wines and was generally on top of her game without attitude or pretense. Food came out at a nice pace, though there was abit of a lull at one point that had me a little worried. When I go to any restaurant - high or low end - I go because I've heard good things about the establishment and want to enjoy those good things. Jamonera received a lot of great press during its opening months, and I very much enjoyed my Barbuzzo experience, so I did expect Jamonera to live up to that combined amount of hype. Unfortunately, it didn't. I guess I really am looking for those dishes that make your eyes bulge a little from the sheer surprise and enjoyment of whatever it is that is dancing across your taste buds. My eyes did not bulge. My buds did find some joy, but for the overall price tag (about $55 for each of us before tax/tip) I would have expected  more stand-outs. The ratio isn't right; for every dud/dish that needs just a little more fine tuning, you should have at least three dishes that are going to make your patrons swoon. I felt this was reversed. For every swoon-worthy dish, there were three that just barely missed the mark. Of course, if I were a professional reviewer with a better budget, I'd go back three or four times before writing it off, but as it stands, I'm not a reviewer. I can only tell you that at the end of the meal, Tuffy Winky and I both felt like we had a nice experience with good enough food, but we weren't really thinking about coming back or recommending it to others.

No comments: