I’m always excited when a new restaurant opens in our little town, particularly if it comes with a pedigree, and Blue Tavern had a pedigree. It’s chef/owner, three-time James Beard Award nominee Ricardo Zarate, is the brains and talent behind such LA success stories as Mo-Chica, Picca and Paiche – red hot restaurants reflecting Zarate’s Peruvian roots combined with a California fresh-ingredients-are-everything sensibility (“Cali-Peruvian cuisine,” he calls it). So it was with great anticipation that I went to the 88-seat Blue Tavern on Lower State Street in the Indigo Hotel for the first time. I was blown away, not only by the flavors of each dish but by the quality of each one. There wasn’t a dud in the bunch and we ordered a lot of dishes, since many are designed for sharing.
Now Michael and I find ourselves going back to BT, as we refer to it, again and again. Every time we have the conversation with each other or with friends and ask the eternal question, “Where should we go to eat?” we end up back there. Not only does the staff treat everybody like family, but the food is just so damn good.
So it was only natural that as I continued to research cooking classes for a novel in progress (see my recent post), I’d want to see how BT’s current executive chef, Alex Carrasco, prepared the dishes Michael and I drool over. I approached Eric Terry, BT’s general manager, who is never without his big smile and gracious demeanor even when the restaurant is packed. Originally from France, Eric came to the US as a young man and worked in many of LA’s best known establishments before hooking up with Zarate and managing his Marina Del Rey outpost, Paiche.
“Do you think I could come in and observe Chef Alex making my favorite dishes?” I asked and explained about my book.
“Of course,” he said without hesitation. “He’ll show you how to cook them so you can make them at home.”
Talk about an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was afraid they wouldn’t want some nosy customer hanging around, not to mention share their secret recipes, but that wasn’t the case.
Michael and I went there this afternoon when the place wasn’t slammed and spent well over an hour with Chef Alex in the kitchen, which he keeps absolutely spotless. You could eat off the floor, as my mother would say.
Chef Alex, who hails from Mexico and is only 28, oversees his staff but also does the cooking – i.e. he doesn’t just stand around giving orders or waiting for his own TV show on the Food Network, although he could certainly host one; he’s that chatty and personable.
And he was serious about showing us how to cook our favorite dishes at home. “Don’t you want to take off that white jacket?” he asked me, nodding at the blazer I was wearing over my black top. “You might get splattered.” Yup, he meant business.
I took off the jacket, washed my hands as he instructed me, and saddled up next to him over the stove. First up was the entree I dream about: pan fried branzino with roasted vegetables and huacatay jalapeno sauce (I have no idea what huacatay is but it’s good, trust me). Also on the To-Do list was Michael’s favorite dish: home made papardelle, beef filet, tomato onion stew and Reggiano cheese, which is like a Peruvian version of beef bourguignon only way better.
Chef Alex took two nice-size branzino filets and sprinkled both sides with salt and pepper.
Into a couple of hot cast iron pans the fish went, skin sides down. They sizzled in the hot oil, a mix of canola and olive. When they were 75% cooked – Chef Alex showed me how to press on them to feel for doneness as well as to watch for the change in their color – we removed the pans from the heat and sauteed the roasted vegetables until they browned nicely. Then came the plating, where presentation matters. Chef Alex drizzled his special green sauce on the side, placed the veggies – cauliflower, zucchini, baby carrots and tomato wedges – in the middle and then rested the fish on top with a bit of salt topped with greens. The result? Behold.
What’s so delicious about the dish is that the fish is moist, tender and sweet inside while the skin is so crispy good you could eat a whole meal of it. Simple preparation using fresh ingredients equals powerful flavors.
The papardelle began with a quick browning of sirloin cubes in a very hot pan and their removal from the stove, then a saute of red onions and tomatoes.
There’s nothing more fun than watching professional chefs shake their pans and flip the food around. I’ve tried that at home and the food inevitably ends up on the floor. LOL.
Into the hot pan went chicken stock, soy sauce, another of Chef Alex’s special sauces and Parmesan cheese until the whole thing got rich and creamy.
Back into the pan went the sirloin just to heat, then the papardelle pasta, which was hand made and only took a few minutes to cook in nearby boiling water. Into a bowl it all went along with a dusting of cheese. Michael couldn’t wait to dig in. The melding of flavors and textures is to die for.
Did I mention that BT also has a pizza oven and turns out incredible pizzas?
We sat down with Chef Alex and General Manager Eric and talked for awhile until customers started piling into the restaurant. And yes, we ate every morsel of “our” creations. What a perfect afternoon. I’d do this kind of book research any day. If only writing the actual book were so pleasurable. Sigh.