Thursday, August 25, 2011
The other day, I went to Viva restaurant I Stockbridge on assignment for “Local Dish.” Little did I know that the advertising person that coordinated this lunch for me had arranged a little something special. Usually Viva is closed on Mondays; Luis, the owner/chef, opened just for me and I had a private chef’s lunch. And it was a.maze.ing.
I didn’t order off the menu, instead, Luis had a special tasting menu planned. I started off with three different tapas (I should mention that Viva is a Spanish restaurant), followed by paella made especially for me, and all washed down with good strong sangria.
I started off with datiles (8.00), which are dates stuffed with an almond, wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, and then deep fried (yes, really), served atop a balsamic reduction. The thick-sliced bacon is naturally smoky and salty and gets really crispy from deep frying (I also learned that Viva does all their frying in canola oil, compared to some more conventional oils). Inside, the date is sweet, soft and juicy, and the almond is crunchy. The balsamic is sticky and sweet, with a slight tang, from being reduced. Each date is the perfect bite of textures and tastes, sticky and sweet and salty and hot and crunchy, all leading to a highly satisfying mouthfeel. The sweet notes of the dish linger – that is, until the next dish. By far my favorite dish that I tasted. I will dream about these dates for many nights to come.
Next came the wild mushroom croquettes (7.00), served with a garlic aioli for dipping. Luis mentioned that he likes making aioli because it originated, at least partly, in Spain. He makes his fresh daily, using egg yolks, garlic, and Spanish olive oil. For the croquettes, he makes a stock-based béchamel and blends in wild mushrooms – cremini or whatever is available at the time. This is then battered and deep fried (gee, are we sensing a theme here). When the plate arrived at my table, the batter was the first thing to hit my nose. It smelled hot and friend and salty, and it was all that and more. The aioli was thick and creamy, with a strong garlic flavor, the croquettes were good on their own, and then the aioli really elevated their flavor. The mushroom flavor, while subtle, was definitely present. The coating was nice and crunchy and kind of crackled when I bit into it, which provided contrast to the filling, with was smooth and hearty. The crispy coating was flavored with herbs, which brought me to an interesting observation. I really enjoyed how every component, layer, level, what have you, of each dish was carefully and thoughtfully flavored and treated with respect (kind of reminiscent of Indian cuisine).
My final tapas was garbanzos, deep fried with Moorish spices (6.00). I got a brief history lesson from Luis when this dish was delivered, who cited the many cultures and traditions that influenced Spanish cuisine and culture, including Roman, African, and Moorish. He named cumin and paprika as spices brought in from these other areas, but I decided to Google “Moorish spices” to get a better idea. A recipe from Frances Mayes’ blog –who is best known for writing “Under the Tuscan Sun” – that was tagged for using Moorish spices included paprika, cumin, turmeric, black pepper, a pinch of ginger, and saffron (read the blog post here: http://www.francesmayesbooks.com/tag/moorish-spices). That seems pretty accurate for these beans, which were fried and then dusted with spices. The scent of the spices was very strong as it wafted up from the bowl. The skin (shell?) of the beans became very crisp from the frying, and inside the bean was still soft and warm. These were surprisingly good – it was hard not to eat the whole bowl and I chatted with Luis. The spices complimented that natural chickpea flavor without overwhelming it, and I was left with a lingering salty flavor.
Finally, completing the meal was a traditional paella. When the Valenciana paella arrives to the table, the heady smells of seafood and saffron are the first the nose detects. The aromatic saffron rice is studded with succulent chicken, chorizo, clams, and shrimp. The natural flavor of the chicken is intensified by the other ingredients, the clams and shrimp are perfectly tender, and the chorizo is mild yet flavorful. Flecked with bits of onion and tomato, the rice has a beautiful bright yellow color from the saffron. Homemade stock helps the rice retain a lot of moisture and keeps it from becoming dry, as well as adding another savory layer of flavor. As a bonus, many of the vegetables are locally grown.
As a true connoisseur of paella knows, the most coveted part is the bits around the edge of the pan that get crispy and caramelized during cooking – and this paella did not disappoint. The charred edges added texture and a deep smoky-sweet flavor.
This dish, which takes about 25 minutes to prepare, serves two for $38.00. A tapas-sized portion or individual entrée is available upon request.
Recommended pairing for any of these dishes: the house sangria, made with a good, strong bodied red wine, liquor, and fresh apples and oranges. The sangria sits for while to allow the flavors to meld, and the fruit soaks up all the flavor from the wine and liquor. Luis jokingly referred to it as “drunken fruit,” noting that many of his patrons eat the fruit at the bottom of the glass (I helped myself to a couple pieces, and it was yummy). Luis invented this sangria recipe and has been serving it since day one at the restaurant.
The atmosphere at Viva is fun and sophisticated. The walls are a vivid red, the napkins and plates are bright yellow, and lively Spanish music plays softly in the background. Little touches, like the pretty silverware pattern, the flowers, and the artwork give the place a lot of character and perfectly compliment the authentic, well-executed Spanish cuisine. They have live flamenco music Friday and Saturday nights, and the dining room has really been cultivated to invite people to sit, talk, enjoy a variety of tapas and drinks, and just take pleasure in each others company. I can’t wait to go back with my dad when he visits this fall.