Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tinto Review

This is for a series of posts related to Iron Chef Jose Garces including:

To celebrate our second anniversary, the GF and I decided to enjoy the tasting menu at Tinto, Iron Chef Jose Garces' second location. Opened in 2005, Garces' intimate restaurant focuses on Spanish cuisine, offering pintxos ("peen-choes"), which is the coastal Basque region's equivalent of tapas. Thus, there are obvious Spanish and French influences at play here.

Tinto Restaurant Entrance

Chef Garces owns seven restaurants in Philadelphia including Tinto, Chifa, Amada, JG Domestic, Garces Trading Company, Distrito, and Village Whiskey. The GF and I have now been to all of his restaurants, with the exception of Chifa - gotta get those pork belly buns that are so ubiquitous now! 

Tinto Restaurant Walls

Tinto exudes a warm atmosphere and is modeled on a wine cellar. The walls are lined with empty wine bottles and the entirety of the restaurant is dimly lit with candles and low lighting.

Tinto Restaurant Dining Room

There is a separate bar area which provides seating for up to 12 guests and during the warmer months, al fresco dining offers the opportunity for guests to enjoy the sights and sounds of  Rittenhouse Square. 

Before I get on to the food, I have to bring up the recent Vanity Fair article which excoriates the modern tasting menu and the supposedly totalitarian reign of cerebral celebrity chefs. Without divulging spoilers - all I have to say is, no one is forced to partake in a tasting menu. The diners that typically go to restaurants that offer a 4 to 5 hour excursion via a 40+ course tasting do so because they are admitted gluttons that also appreciate the journey they are being taken on. The supposed lack of choice? Restaurants that offer a la carte options are a dime a dozen. It's our choice to indulge in the chef's vision of a perfect meal. But I digress ...

It's fitting though that while we initially were planning on partaking in Chef Garces' tasting menu ($55 pp), we were offered an off-menu deluxe tasting ($75 pp). While the number of courses (thankfully!) did not differ between the two, the deluxe tasting offered Jamon Iberico and the dry-aged sirloin. Natch, we opted for the latter.

Note: I've listed the a la carte pricing as well for any future diners that may want to try specific dishes at Tinto, rather than indulge in a tasting. Again - your choice!

Deluxe Tasting Menu ($75 pp)

Knowing that it was a special night, the staff at Tinto brought us complimentary Cava, essentially Spanish champagne. This was definitely a nice touch.

Trepat, Castell Roig, Brut Rosat, Penedès, NV ($60)

Made from a red Spanish wine grape variety, Trepat blends are often found in rosés. Dry on the initial attack, this was well-balanced and lent itself to a nice strawberry finish. Perfect sparkler for what was to come (namely the Jamon Iberico!).

Mahon Cheese Crisp 

For the amuse, we received a duet of cheese crisps, made from Mahon, a Spanish cow's milk cheese. These intensely flavored cylinders were light, airy, and completely hollow on the inside. They were crisp, almost to a fault, as they crumbled to pieces with any sort of pressure. Frankly I'm amazed they even came out to us in one piece! The accompanying tomato creme fraiche was smoky and had a nice depth of flavors.

Jamon Iberico de Belotta (Market Price)

Pure joy. Sure I've had dishes that had bits of jamón ibérico in it - the ibérico ham croquettas at Jamonera come to mind. However, I've only previously had jamón ibérico in its own naked, pure essence at Eataly in NYC. Not surprising as these slivers are typically priced at around $80 per pound!

Sourced from black Iberian pigs in Spain, the pigs feed naturally on herbs and acorns until the 'time' is right. Then, the diet is limited to acorns for the best quality of jamón ibérico, or jamón ibérico de bellota. After slaughter, the ham goes through a drying and curing process that takes anywhere from 12 to 48 months.

This particular iteration was cured for at least 24 months, resulting in a marbling that is clearly apparent. Smooth in texture and undeniably rich, these melted in my mouth when I could resist the urge to chew. The GF found the fattiness a bit off-putting, though I did let her know that due to the pig's diet, much of the fat is oleic acid, which is a "good" fat that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and raise HDL levels (the good kind). Jamón ibérico as the new cheerios? I'd eat it for breakfast!

However, I'm thinking that after 2 years - she no longer believes everything that comes out of my mouth. 

Olives [$5]
Mixed olives, Mahon, saucisson sec  

These were a nice salty complement to the ibérico pork. The saucisson sec was reminiscent of a smoky chorizo. The large green olives were naturally more bitter (due to being unripened prior to the curing process), which cut through the fattiness of the jamón ibérico. The orange rinds and the small cubes of Mahon cheese worked well to break up the monotony of the snack as well.

Cheese Mixto ($15)
P'tit Basque, Blue de Basque, Queso Leonora, Acacia Honey, Bee Pollen, Espellette, Quice, Apple

From bottom to top, the P'tit Basque is a pasteurized sheep's milk cheese that is typically aged for 70 days. It had a moderate sharpness that had some acidity on the finish. The Blue de Basque is a relatively new blue roquefort that had a crumbly, nutty texture. Salty pockets complemented the sweet flavors of the sheep's milk. The last of the trio was our favorite, the queso leonora. This goat's cheese is produced from Spanish Murciana goats, which produced sweeter milks than most countries. Perfectly smooth, this cheese had a nice balance of acidity and tanginess.

The quince had a muted smooth sweetness that was complementary to all, while the bee pollen and acacia honey helped temper the bold flavors of some of the cheeses. The GF was not a fan of the espelette, but I found the chili pepper to be an interesting spice component that worked well with the P'tit Basque.

Revuelto de Bacalao ($13)
Soft scrambled egg, black cod, goat cheese, spinach

This was one of the more interesting dishes that reminded me of a play on eggs and lox, though with salted black cod. Unfortunately, this was possibly our least favorite dish - but only due to the fact that we don't typically like salty dishes as a whole. The marinated cod is inherently salty, so amidst a sea of perfectly cooked soft scrambled eggs and luxurious spinach, there were brazen pockets of salt. The goat cheese provided a cool tempering agent, attempting to assuage the saltiness of the cod. The marmalade on the toast was a nice change of pace and taste, while the dual discs of cippolini onions provided an added sweet richness to the overall dish.

Gambas Brochette ($12)
Shrimp, chorizo, lemon grape tomato, espelette chile

"Oh lordy," was exactly what came out of the GF's mouth when these two huge prawns came to the table. Being the gentleman, I graciously offered her the 'tail' ends of both shrimp, which is what most people see/eat when they get the crustacean. Certainly succulent and meaty, these 'gambas' were amazing. However, I got the stars of the show - the delicious heads of the prawns. Briny and juicy, these heads were meant to be sucked and savored.

You know that these prawns are fresh off the boat since most shrimp that is served without the head has been out of the sea for days, if not weeks. Since the head contains most of the crustacean's internal organs that are typically associated with an animal's torso, leaving the 'head on' speeds up any degradation to the rest of the shrimp. Long story short, these were fresh, snappy, delicious.

The accompanying chorizo rings were more of an aside, but were smoky and delicious as well. The lemon-grape aioli was a nice sweet and acidic component to the dish though, cutting through the savoriness of the prawns.

Pork Belly Montaditos ($8)
Berkshire pork belly, honey lacquer, shaved apples

This is exactly what I was waiting for and exceeded my expectations. Montaditos are tiny, tapas-sized rolls or sandwiches that are made from high-quality ingredients. These iterations were topped with Berkshire pork, which is particularly prized for its high fat content, marbling, and tenderness. Thus, this Berkshire pork belly was satisfyingly succulent.

The high fat content left the GF wanting for something that was more aesthetically suited to her, but that was fine with me! Because that meant I had twice the satisfaction. The garbanzo puree on the bread added a nice creaminess to the dish, with the julienned apples and honey cutting through the fattiness of the dish. Since I work a few blocks away from Tinto, I can see myself coming here for a drink and this dish.

Speaking of drinks, at this point we were considering a bottle of wine. But we figured one bottle might lead to another and considering we had work the next day, we went with the safe bet of a round of cocktails.  

Sangria Blanca ($9 glass / $32 pitcher)
White wine, absolut peach, fruit

"Best in life!" the GF declared. I'm assuming she was taken aback by how much she enjoyed the drink - I think what she meant by that was it was the best drink she's ever had. Clean and crisp, the white wine and the peach vodka partnered well together. The small cubes of green apple brought some nice acidity to the drink as well.

Mairritze ($13)
Cachaca, muddled mint, lime, blood orange

I opted for the mairritze. The muddled mint and the cachaca, a liquor made from sugarcane, were certainly reminiscent of a mojito, one of my favorite drinks. Cachaca is typically found in Brazil's national cocktail, the caipirinha. The blood orange brought some brightness to the drink. Surprisingly, this drink is not cloyingly sweet - it had a subtle sugariness, which was really light and refreshing.

But back to the food!

Alcachofas con Trufas ($12)
Baby artichokes, pappardelle, meyer lemon, idiazabal

The freshly made pappardelle pasta soaked up the flavors of the artichokes, which had a nice clean taste - not as vinegary as I thought they would be. Still, this was not one of our favorite dishes. The Idiazabal, a sheep's milk cheese, was a bit muted in flavor. The earthiness of the black truffle was not that pronounced in this dish as well, perhaps overpowered by the beurre blanc.

Vierlas con Panchetta ($18)
Diver scallops, cider demi-glace, benton's bacon, shaved apple

On the other hand, this duet of scallops was perfect, and perhaps the GF's favorite dish of the night. The sweet cider demi-glace foam and shaved apples cut through smoky, buttery scallops. The grits were perfectly cheesy, while maintaining its inherently granular texture. The crispy shavings of pancetta hidden in the grits were a nice fatty foil to the spinach underneath.

"You know something's great when you're in love with a dish created from two things that you usually don't like." The GF isn't a fan of scallops or grits due to their respective textures. But Iron Chef Garces won her over. He had me at pork belly, though ...

Entrecote ($38)
Sirloin steak, catalan spinach, quince paste, fresh goat cheese 

Our onslaught came to a finish, at least before the desserts, with the 28-day dry aged steak. Nicely marbled due to the dry-aging process, the sirloin was well seasoned and was served closer to a medium temperature, though this may have been the intent since a temperature was never asked for.
The crust on the steak was evident and the spice was pronounced. This was tempered by the sweet, tangy goat cheese and a vinegary spinach "salad," which was mixed with pine nuts, apples, and currants, which popped in your mouth - little joy pellets. Overall, very good, but considering the gauntlet of dishes, a bit lost amidst some of the home-runs.

Cappuccino ($5.50) / Mighty Leaf Organic Black Tea ($4)

Some bitterness was needed to break up the heaviness of the meal and to somewhat cleanse our palates before the dessert course, so the GF opted for a cappucino, which is totally fine since we're not in Europe, and I went with some organic black tea.

Cuajada ($8)
Toffee, black pepper custards, fig, pistachio

This was an unexpected, but interesting dessert. The black pepper custard underneath was more jelly-like than creamy. The toppings included candied elements such as toffee, pistachios, and whole figs. Certainly not your typical saccharine dessert.

Chocolate ($9)
Smoked chocolate torte, chestnut purée, sherry ice cream

This was definitely our favorite of the two. The sherry ice cream provided a fresh, icy counterpoint to the dark chocolate cake, which had a necessary bitterness to assuage the heaviness of our meal. The chestnut puree had depth of flavor, but the favorite component of this dish for me? Easily the meringue on top of the chocolate torte. It was so light and airy on the inside and had enough texture on the outside - perfect.

Overall, our anniversary dinner at Tinto was one of my favorite meals in Philly. The service was impeccable - our server, Rebecca, accommodated all of my requests (turning down the heat and providing a list of the dishes served) and even went the extra mile in wishing us both a happy anniversary and offering complimentary champagne.

While not all of the dishes were home-runs, they were all interesting and well-conceived. And frankly, the majority of the dishes, did in fact, hit it out of the park. Do get the pork belly, prawns, and scallop. Do splurge on the jamón ibérico. Please get the white sangria and the mairritze. In fact, if you're interested in cooking a la Garces, the Chef recently came out with a new book - The Latin Road Home. But enough sports references and plugging, let's just say Jose Garces did it again for me and provided the GF and I with a wonderful anniversary meal.

One final note - I heard through the grapevine that Chef Garces will be teaming up with the Kimmel Center later this year - so that's something to look forward to as well! I'm interested to see what else he has in store for us.

Tinto on Urbanspoon

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