Cúrate- Asheville, North Carolina

It was April 2011 and I was on the road trip of all road trips, driving through vast green landscapes in the beautiful Carolinas with like-palated friends on a united quest for great food.  We were still riding high on one of the most sensational dinners ever, one hosted by Chef Sean Brock at Husk the night before, so filling and fulfilling that we needn’t have any breakfast that morning.  But by mid afternoon hunger struck and our GPS was honed in on Asheville, North Carolina for a quick pitstop on our way to Chilhowie, Virginia.
It was just our luck that a new 1 month old Spanish tapas restaurant called Cúrate was on our path, an attractive alternative to the numerous Waffle Houses and Cracker Barrels along the highway. We were excited to eat Spanish tapas by a chef who was raised in the Ferran Adrià/José Andrés family through stints at El Bulli in Spain and The Bazaar in Los Angeles, a young chef named Katie Button who opened Cúrate with her fiancé Felix Meana.  Button couldn’t have asked for a better partner in Meana who runs the beverage program and the front of house at Cúrate, and comes with a wealth of experience- as chef de rang at El Bulli for several years and most recently as the Director of Service at The Bazaar.

It’s no wonder then, that the minute we walked into this bright spacious restaurant in downtown Asheville we were given the warmest welcome and the most attentive service imaginable.  How it came to be that this couple left the brights lights and big cities to settle in a quaint and somewhat removed part of North Carolina (albeit with an edgy artsy vibe reminiscent of Berkeley) is a mystery to me, but they managed to create a comfortable and inviting space where these 4 out-of-towners felt right at home.A glorious leg of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermín summoned to us from the marble countertop amidst a dizzying perfume of flambéed sherry wafting from the open kitchen, and we happily obliged with an order of España’s finest, shaved, with wedges of pan con tomate.

There were creamy croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, patatas bravas, garlicky gambas al ajillo and pincho moruno (lamb rubbed with Moorish spices), among numerous other staples of traditional Spanish tapas on Cúrate’s menu, and plenty of chorizo and bacalao to go around.  With nearly 40 items on their menu we had to practice restraint, a difficult thing to do, for we were on our way to a 20 course tasting dinner in a few hours.  We had ‘chistorra & chips José’s way’, spicy little chorizos wrapped in sliced potatoes and deep fried to a crisp, on the brink of being too oily yet tasty nonetheless, a popular dish served at José Andrés’ Jaleo.

Roasted red peppers, onions and eggplant drizzled with a 30 year sherry vinaigrette were crisscrossed with salty and briny Spanish anchovies in the escalavida con anchoas dish.

Tender thick stalks of Navarran white asparagus, tossed with lemon zest and a tarragon vinaigrette, were arranged as vertical towers against a backdrop of fluffy mayonnaise espuma.

Thanks to Meana there is a great selection of beverages to complement the food, from imported Spanish beers and sangria made table side, to Cavas and numerous other Catalan wines like Montsant and Priorat.  Swirl Rioja in your wine glass or spill a drop or two of panaché on your face as you attempt to drink from a glass porrón with your head tilted back.  It will all go down well with setas al jerez, mushrooms sautéed with sherry, olive oil and a sprig of thyme.

The handful of dishes that we had that day were good- certainly shy of what we’ve had and could have in Spain- but extremely promising, with a solid grasp of the essence of Spanish tapas and the beauty of its simply yet intensely flavored cuisine.  Asheville is fortunate to have this new addition to its culinary scene, and with Meana at the helm to maintain its superb level of service, it’s a Spanish oasis that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anybody traveling through the Carolinas and anybody needing to ‘cure yourself’, cúrate, with a good time.

Cúrate Tapas Bar

11 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

(828) 239-2946

Random trivia: Did you know that the largest living organism known to man is a mushroom? There is single specimen of honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, covering 3.4 square miles of land in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, that has been growing for some 2,400 years- and is still growing.

Casa Mono- New York

On a cold wet day in New York City when trench coats become studded with specks of rain and speeding taxis create massive tsunamis that engulf the sidewalks, no place feels more cozy and right than Casa Mono in Gramercy Park, the charming little Spanish restaurant of the Batali/Bastianich empire. Since its opening 7 years ago, Casa Mono has become one of my favorite regular spots, one of those special places where I can feast in the familiar flavors of Spanish comfort food while discovering new ways to savor items like frog legs and cockscombs. Chef Andy Nusser’s hearty fare, influenced by Spanish tapas and served with a unique cosmopolitan style, has been bringing in hoards of city dwellers and out of towners into its neighborhood abode every night. After a 3 year blank in my yearly visits to New York City, I was looking forward to revisiting Casa Mono and enjoying what I had hoped would be yet another spectacular meal.

With only 10 small tables and a handful of bar seats, this little Spanish gem is always crowded, its overflow spilling into the adjacent Bar Jamón where the theme is more true to a traditional tapas bar and the food is decidedly Catalan, with classics like pa amb tomàquet, tuna escabeche, crema catalana, a handful of bocadillos and a glorious hock of jamón ibérico shaved to order. On the day that I went, I brushed off the drops of water from my coat, settled into my favorite seat at Casa Mono at the solitary table in the front corner of the restaurant, and watched the bustle of Manhattan through the large window as we opened a bottle of 2004 Baron de Magaña Navarra. With haloed streetlights and muffled traffic, New York City takes on a special glow and a sentimental character in heavy downpour, creating the perfect backdrop for a Casa Mono evening.

In the pulpo dish, perhaps the best dish at Casa Mono, perfectly charred tender baby octopus is seasoned with garlic and parsley, while fennel is served three ways, slice raw, sautéed and its bright green needle-like leaves sprinkled on top, all tossed with juicy wedges of pink grapefruit for a refreshing entrée.

Foie gras with cinco cebollas features a caramelized wedge of seared foie gras on baguette, its luscious fattiness complemented with 5 types of onions- pickled red pearl onions, ribbons of green onions, translucent leeks, sweet sugary sautéed onions and cipollinis, making for a fun dish where every bite delivers a different type of tanginess.

Razor clams a la plancha with generous heaps of garlic and chopped parsley scream La Boqueria, its juicy meaty flesh transporting me back to the vibrant sounds and smells of one of the most exciting marketplaces in the world. While Casa Mono is technically not a true Spanish tapas bar, they have simple fresh dishes like these that pay tribute to the spirit of delicious Spanish soul food.

The robust flavors of harissa, chickpeas, pickled red onions and mint stand up to the thick cuts of lamb chops that ooze savory fatty juice with each slice of the knife.

One cannot speak of Mario Batali’s food without mentioning pork, and at Casa Mono a whole Hudson Valley pig is broken down into several menu items like albondigas, crispy belly and croquetas, and we opted for the chorizo dish with spring beans and manchego cheese. Yellow wax beans, petit pois, generous shavings of manchego cheese and a dash of mint all brilliantly showcased the succulent piece of grilled chorizo sausage.

Roasted bone marrow with radish, caper and parsley gremolata is served with Casa Mono’s scrumptious version of pa amb tomàquet. While the marrow is delicious, the longitudinal cuts served to us are 80% bone and sparse in marrow content.

One of Casa Mono’s signature dishes is the whole duck egg with mojama, a twist on ham and eggs. A large sunny side up egg, perfectly cooked and bright canary yellow in all its glory, garnished with a slice of black truffle and gently laid over a bed of fingerling potatoes tossed in truffle vinaigrette, oozes golden lava into the valley of salt cured tuna. Mojama is traditionally enjoyed thinly sliced with a drizzle of the finest Spanish olive oil, but its savory meatiness is given an alternative dance partner in this soirée.

Every restaurant has its ups and downs, and the lobster dish with clams, peas, pea shoots, pickled red pepper and crispy jamón fails miserably, demonstrating that one cannot just throw in a bunch of tasty ingredients and expect to make it taste good. The lackluster sauce weighs down the beauty of the jamón and the spongy texture of the lobster spells its doom.

While crema catalana and the Mono Sundae made with plum brandy sound enticing, the pudín de naranja, a creamy bread pudding with red wine poached pears and caramel ice cream, is what we order. A slight burn on the edges of the bread pudding gives a nice crispy texture and smoky aroma, and it all goes down well with a glass of Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximénez, an amazing dessert wine with an intense passionate sweetness and honey viscosity.

The menu at Casa Mono, which is bigger than the tiny restaurant, is comprehensive if not a bit overwhelming, as it is impossible to conquer it all in even 2 consecutive visits. Bacalao croquetas, calamares fritos, baby chopitos, fideos with chorizo, sweetbreads, scallops, mackerel, cod cheeks, skirt steak and rabbit are but a sample of other items that are all undoubtedly amazing. Although local New Yorkers have told me that Casa Mono’s service and food have been inconsistent in the past few years, my revisit proved to be just as magical as I had remembered. Tucked inside of our cozy nook, far away from the clapping thunder and violent downpour on that gray Manhattan evening, my friends and I raised our glasses to another fun and delicious dinner at Casa Mono- still good, after all these years.

Casa Mono & Bar Jamón

125 E 17th St # 1
New York, NY 10003-3447
(212) 253-2773

Random trivia: Did you know that a baby octopus, which grows to about 2-5 inches in length, is the size of a flea when it is first born?

The Tapas Lounge, Aman Resort- New Delhi, India

The sights and sounds of the chaotic city of New Delhi were new and exciting for me during the first few days of my travel, but after the second week I started to slow down my pace and let everything settle into my overstimulated brain.  The polluted air filled with toxic fumes from the auto-rickshaws aggressively winding through tight spaces on the crowded streets was getting to my lungs, and the constant honking of horns was piercing right through my eardrums into my throbbing brain.  The more time I spent in New Delhi, the more I was confused about how to accept this profoundly different culture which bore no resemblance to my more structured American and Japanese upbringing.

Every day as I explored the city, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated at the immense traffic that was generated by people who drove by their own illogical rules.  I didn’t see the point in traffic lights and road signs as nobody seemed to follow them anyway.  As if the ignorance of road rules was bad enough, there were camels, mules, cows and monkeys causing mayhem in the middle of the streets during rush hour.  Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow let alone bat an eye, as honking cars maneuvered past urinating cows and famished street children at busy intersections.  On several occasions I witnessed entire families on single tattered bicycles trudging down the highway going the opposite direction into speeding cars, oblivious to their near brush with death.  And to all of the reckless moped drivers- do you really think that your turbans take the place of safety helmets?  If people honored traffic rules and actually stopped at a red light, then the constant traffic jams would let up.  The utter inefficiency of ignoring all form of order and common sense was flabbergasting.  But….that’s India.

On another one of these typical days in New Delhi where my senses were being flooded with the absurdities of the culture, I went to seek refuge at my new found urban paradise, the Aman Resort.  I was captivated by the peaceful atmosphere of this beautiful hotel on my first visit, and my soul yearned to make its pilgrimage back there.  This time I went to the split level Tapas Lounge that boasted a wood-fired oven in the large open kitchen and was decorated lavishly yet tastefully with silver leaf ceilings and leather flooring. The ground floor is where this action is, and where diners can enjoy Spanish wines and sangrias in a sexy and seductive atmosphere.  The second floor lounge, with an unobstructed view of the reflection pool, is where diners can stretch out on plush sofas and leaf through rare Taschen books.   The third floor is more formal and traditional for those who want to get serious and enjoy the resident Spanish chef’s wonderful tasting menus.

Spanish chef Jonay Armas runs the kitchen at the Tapas Lounge.  Young and handsome Armas has worked alongside famed Michelin starred Catalan chef Santi Santamaria, among other reputable chefs like Paco Roncero.  He did a lovely tasting menu lunch for us in the relaxing second floor lounge.  The vegetarian portion of the tapas menu featured classic dishes like patatas bravas, ensaladilla rusa and tortilla Española, and a Papas Canarias with Mojo to reflect his Canary Island heritage.  Non vegetarian items included garlic prawns, lamb skewers and cured anchovies.   All, except for a plate of jamon iberico, were under 350 Rupees ($7 US).

The toasted almonds and house cured olives were amazing.  The olives were meaty and succulent, bursting with aromatic juice and savor.  We started our fantastic meal with one of the best gazpachos that I have ever had.  Slivers of fresh garlic, forest green basil oil and a twist of finely ground black pepper added the perfect amount of zest to this silky Andalucian tomato soup.  The amalgam of vegetable essences was rich and dense, and the intense flavors in each spoonful coated my sensory receptors with a magical fruity veil.

I was in meat lover’s paradise with the grilled chorizo dish.  Of course, the chorizo was imported from Spain, as the predominantly Hindu and Muslim populations of India do not eat pork.  It’s very difficult for me to survive more than 2 days without pork products, so this grilled plate, saturated with the finest pork essence and drippings ever imaginable, was a heaven sent gift.  Each slice had that perfect crunchy sear that is necessary to concentrate the meat flavors.

Tender cubes of crispy potatoes on a bed of spicy red tomato sauce were generously layered with creamy aioli in the patatas bravas dish.  Each cube had a pleasantly crisp exterior with the perfect amount of oiliness to complement the rich aioli.

Crispy calamari was indeed extra crispy with a wonderful light texture.  These deep fried rings of seafood delight, with a squeeze of sour lemon and a light dip into the aioli, were delightful.  Once you start, you can’t stop…

We enjoyed our delicious meal with a refreshing glass of their Sangrina, a virgin sangria with diced apples.

Chef Armas brought up this plate of assorted croquettes with fresh green salad.  Mushroom, chicken and jamon croquettes were warm and toasty.  As I bit through the perfectly fried crunchy shell, the creamy rich filling melted in my mouth and gently massaged my tongue into a catatonic bliss.

We finished our fantastic meal with crema catalana, the Spanish version of crème brûlée.  As I struck the top layer with my spoon, the solid burnt caramel shattered into large pieces and gave way to the sweet pool of cream underneath.  I watched the silver spoon slowly sink into the thick ooze of vanilla sap before I pounced on it with my ravenous appetite.

The luxurious and serene Aman Resort, one of my favorite resorts in the whole world, allowed me to escape from the noisy and turbulent streets of New Delhi.  With Chef Armas’ magical touch, my dining experience at the Tapas Lounge took me further along in my retreat away from reality to the lush green countrysides of Spain.  These delectable dishes were some of the best tapas that I have ever had, and it rivaled some of my most memorable plates that I had in Barcelona.  We concluded our Aman experience with a fascinating tour through the wine cellars and cigar humidors.

My body is back in the US, but my heart and spirit still remain attached to the tranquil grounds of the Aman Resort…

The Aman Resort, New Delhi

Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110003

tel (91) 11 4363 3333

Random trivia: Did you know that gazpacho, the most famous Andalucian dish of chilled vegetable soup, was originally considered poor man’s food?  It was made with bread, water and olive oil, all pounded in a wooden bowl called a dornillo.  Later versions were made with bread, water, anchovy bones, salt and olive oil.  It wasn’t until Christopher Columbus introduced tomatoes to Europe in the 1400’s that tomatoes were added to gazpacho.