The look on Mary Reynold’s face when I told her our almost famous executive chef Michelle was leaving Beleza shortly after we opened was an amusing combination of shock, disappointment and dread…
“Riccardo, you know this is not good…”
…so it goes…
I read all Vonnegut’s novels in college, but that quote form Slaughterhouse Five stuck with me; existentialism pure enough for a bumper sticker.
….and so it goes again… after being open two months at Escorpion, we are sitting at the bar high tops trying our new executive Jose Rego’s menu. For Dana and me, it’s the second night of tasting, while our dining companions Selden and Paul are newbies.
We walk in and are greeted by the MF Sushi boys, looking like Asian mafia in their designer duds. They really enjoyed their dinner, and are especially happy about a new dish we are trying tonight, giant prawns in mojo sauce. It’s a good sign, ‘cause the boys know their fish.
They are leaving, but agree to taste one more dish. So Joe brings out the first ceviche: tilapia. Funny choice to feed to a couple of fish snobs;you’d be hard pressed to find a less prestigious fish.
Chris: “Tilapia-hah-you’re getting away with murder.”
Alex: “You eat fish, but you don’t feel like you’re eating fish.”
Not bad, not bad at all.
We taste it and are just as impressed, the acidity is mild, flavors are balanced; everyone agrees it needs a bit more heat, but we disagree on salt. Selden is alone in finding the dish undersalted . There are just a few bits of fish left, so I will make the final call. I re-taste a couple then add a few grains of sea salt to the last two. Give Ms. Selden credit for her palate: the dish was ever-so-slightly undersalted. A strange occurrence considering Joe’s nickname at Sotto Sotto was Saltfingers Rego.
We move on to Hamachi with pineapple and grated freeze-dried corn. Excellent combination. I want to try the corn whole, not grated, but my idea is shot down by the rest of the group while I go back to the kitchen to get it, and give up without trying it. Dana believes the pineapple should be cut smaller. Both fish and fruit are a ¼-inch dice, and when you bite into it the pineapple tends to be the first flavor on your palate, masking the delicate flesh on the fish. I like cutting the fruit and fish the same size, but I give in to his suggestion after eating several more bites. It seems like the pineapple shows itself more on each bite, going from complementary to overpowering in a few bites. Otherwise it could be that Dana’s suggestion made me notice something that had slipped by me. In any case, the pineapple will be changed to 1/8-inch dice, and we move on to hot food.
The prawns in mojo look great with their red heads and jet black eyes staring at you and we dig in, these being the dish that Chris enjoyed so much. Everyone loves their prawns except for me.
“Are the prawns tough?”
“Mine is excellent.”
Those damn Madagascar whole prawns: I served them for a wine dinner at Sotto Sotto years back and half of them turned to mush after cooking. Now your choice is to apologize and look like an incompetent moron or ignore it and have 30 people talk about how you are an incompetent moron… choices…choices… We’ll keep the sauce, and change the shrimp to a more consistent product.
We continue through another eight courses: mussels with chorizo and shrimp broth; braised octopus with posole; shrimp enchiladas; trout a la talla; fried whole red snapper;
oysters with tomato-mezcal water; corvina wrapped in banana leaf with moqueca sauce and barbecue shrimp tacos. As the tasting goes on our suggestions are quicker and the conversation strays to more amusing topics. One dish is eliminated for difficulty of execution, two will get a change of protein and one is perfect, the rest will get tweaked. We have until August 8, the launch date of the new menu, to refine all the details .
I have had many tastings like this throughout the years, as they are the industry standard job interview. I consider a tasting successful if the dishes are 10 percent memorable, 30 percent really good, 30 percent good, and 30 percent edible, with nothing being improperly cooked. I have known and worked with Joe for 10 years now, and have never seen him cook like this. This was the most successful food tasting I have had the pleasure to experience. Truly impressive. Joe has been dealing with difficult personal issues recently, and told me that this has helped him focus on his food. Inspiration often comes out of suffering.
…so it goes…