When Size Does -

Samples of a few of the 14 tapas available at Café Paladar: (clockwise from bottom) Barbecued lamb quesadilla with pickled red onions; Cabo Wabo prawns; Gulf Coast Baja ceviche; and oysters Mari Esther.
David vs. Goliath. From a PR standpoint, it doesn’t hurt to be the underdog. “We’ve received lots of support from the local community,” says chef-owner Brian West of the fight to keep the name he had picked for his fledgling restaurant. Café Mariposa, it seems, was too close for the comfort of giant retailer Neiman Marcus and its chain of in-store Mariposa lunchrooms. Goliath sent a “cease-and-desist” letter and David folded — though not without a modest public-relations victory. “All publicity is good publicity,” one (or more) wag has said, so perhaps the change to Café Paladar (“palate,” in Spanish) will reap at least short-term benefits. (Never mind that there’s already a popular Paladar in Washington, D.C.)

In the long run, however, what’s in a name is less important than what’s on the plate, and West has made serious efforts to distinguish his operation with unique offerings, starting with his tapas selection. First the kudos: West is about the only serious chef in town to realize that diners don’t always want to be freighted down with heavy, expensive appetizers before a heavy, expensive entrée. Or a light, expensive entrée, for that matter. Accordingly, the modestly portioned tapas are each $2.50, the selection is large and varied, and many are worth combining for a light lunch or dinner.

The hot and slightly sweet Cuban beef tinga served on plantain chips heads my list, followed by the big-flavored, barbecued-lamb quesadilla with pickled red onions. Both worked beautifully at a recent lunch, with some equally big red wines, a merlot and a cabernet from Washington state’s Pepper Bridge Winery.

Duck didn’t do so well on the smoked duck nachos, however. The slice of beautifully rare duck breast with goat cheese might have succeeded as advertised with a mango salsa, but served draped over a wedge of peach, the slippery combination was wrong texturally and off in flavor balance — no phyllo-wrapped lobster-and-chorizo cigar, in other words.

The honey-rum, black-bean empanada missed as well, its delicate envelope underdone and its stuffing short of the expected jack cheese and roasted red pepper. The Gulf Coast Baja ceviche countered sweetness with heat and emerged the winner of this particular evening, though for flavor thrills we did keep returning to the insidious basket of chips and strips of plantain dipped in West’s uniquely formulated chimichurri. Flavored rice-wine vinegar is one of its secret ingredients, we were told.

West freely admits that chorizo is another secret weapon in his culinary arsenal (“I’d make chorizo ice cream `if I thought anyone would buy it`,” he claims), but there are times when it’s also a weapon of mass destruction. More than easily detectable in the lunch menu’s wild-turkey burger, it obliterates the feral fowl.

Yet, when West wants to be subtle, he can create with a sure hand — a case in point being the salmon Vera Cruz with black mussels. I’m not convinced that this was wild salmon, though our server said it was; the texture seemed too loose, the color and flavor not intense enough. But its combination with the diminutive mussels and a seductive broth seasoned with capers, olives, and garlic was both immensely appealing on its own and extremely complementary to a bottle of aromatic and multi-layered Don Olegario 2004 Albariño from Spain’s Rias Baixas region. You can safely ignore the incidental, saffron-potato gnocchi that take up space in the broth, however; they add nothing.

I wouldn’t call Paladar’s smoked, chili-rubbed tenderloin exactly shy and retiring, yet everything on this plate is in perfect balance — nothing can be easily subtracted and nothing cries out to be added. The beef was beautiful; the dab of mescal béarnaise didn’t shout smoky agave, but it worked; the ranchero demi-glace added some ayy-yi-yis to a classic sauce; and the accompanying, crumbly textured tamal with a little roasted corn and sweet potato was a compañero with some star power of its own. Equally admirable equilibrium was exhibited another day by a special of plantain-crusted mahi-mahi with a mango salsa and mole verde.

West’s stint in Biga’s banquet kitchen is apparent in many dishes on Paladar’s menu. Several other staffers are also veterans of that crucible of contemporary cuisine. And when inspiration leads to exultation, I’m all for it. Never, outside of my mother’s kitchen — or maybe a campfire’s Dutch oven, have I had a better berry cobbler. True, those campfire cobblers were made from really wild berries, black, blue, or red, but granting Paladar a pass on “Texas-wild” this one time, I’ll still swoon over the biscuit-like top and the fabulous, ripe-fruit flavors. The ancho-chili, Mexican-chocolate cake is equally swoon-worthy, its texture almost erotic and its hint (okay, smack) of chili an element that lifts the chocolate into a new realm. The early Aztecs knew this before the time of Cortez — and well before Macondo’s magical mariposas. If, for naming inspiration, I had to pick between Garcia Marquez’s bevy of butterflies and a palate forged in chili and chocolate, I’d pick the primitive paladar every time.


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