Every now and then you sit down to a meal that, in retrospect, you deem was conceived and executed with near perfection. Nothing out of place, nothing unnecessary, almost every flavor spot on, not an ingredient superfluous, nearly nothing lacking. This happened to me recently at SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, and it can happen to you as well.
I was invited to sample the first dinner in the Tropic of Cancer Chef’s Menu At SaltAir, under the auspices of Brandi Key, the executive chef there. It was devoted to Baja, Mexico, and it was, as I write above, stellar.
You begin with a tostada, a crisp, bright amuse-bouche — plus of shrimp ceviche paired with shredded lettuce, avocado, jicama, white onion, sweet chili, and key lime. It’s a good way to get settled in your destination, near the Sea of Cortez.
Make sure your passport is at hand. Key has created a whimsical guide to the series, complete with menus and details, and you can even have it stamped upon departure.
Clams are next — Almejas Asada — stuffed and roasted Venus clams with butter, onion, garlic, tomato, cilantro, and hot sauce. These little bivalves are tender and briny — nothing worse than chewy clams — and the technique used in their preparation is exemplary. Too often, even in areas close to bodies of water, seafood is overcooked, rendered tough and unpalatable.
When all of this dish’s components mingle in your mouth, close your eyes, and you can imagine yourself on a beach in Baja. Bonus: The hot sauce Key serves with the clams, her favorite, is Valentina, an ideal choice.
Like tamales? I do, but have had my fair share of dry, pallid ones. My benchmark? Every morning for about a year, I bought two tamales from a women selling them from a cooler on a corner in SoHo. They were moist, rich, made well. Maria was from Mexico, and, I’m happy to report, parlayed her culinary skills into her own food truck.
I’ve had very few tamales since then that compare to her products, so the Tamales Fajados at the Baja dinner had me a bit anxious.
I should not have worried, however. The masa craft here is on par with Maria’s. The tamale comes to your table wrapped in a husk, as it should, of course, and it’s a beautiful dish. A pool of Baja salsa shares the plate, and when you unwrap your second course you’ll be greeted with steam and a delectable scent. It’s ranchero chicken, and it’s swaddled by the masa, and when you cut into it you will smile. One taste and you’ll sigh.
Ready for a show stopper? Good, because the next course in this tasting menu is surely that. Pescado Zarandeado. A fresh snapper split head to tail, then grilled, head intact. The fish is marinated in a chile-soy mixture, and served with red onion, lime, corn tortillas, a tomato salad, and black beans dotted with queso fresca. Again, something plated well, a treat for the eyes.
The flesh of the fish — and we ate it all, including the succulent cheeks and all the rich meat near the backbone — was as good as almost any I’ve ever had the privilege of tasting, and the skin added a welcome texture. We put two or three chunks of the snapper on our tortillas, added the other components, and enjoyed.
Only things I wished for: My second tortilla grew cold before I finished the first, and the dish needed cilantro, which Key gladly sent out after we requested it. In all, this dish, a nice example of how various cultures have influenced and transformed a cuisine, is something I would order weekly.
Finally, dessert. Chimangos & Helado. You know, just your plain old cinnamon-sugar doughnuts and vanilla ice cream. But not so plain, it turns out. My dining companion, who is a notorious abstainer of dessert, helped me devour this one with gusto. (Note: I, too, have reached the stage in my dining career in which cheese is much more desired at the end of a repas … give me a few pieces of aged Pecorino and Manchego, and I’m happy.) Think fluffy and warm small doughnuts, at nearly melt-in-your-mouth condition, and a vanilla ice cream from Lee’s Creamery. No cheese here, but we were fine with that.
We sat, drinking glasses of Gewürztraminer, talking about the Pescado Zarandeado, agreeing that this menu was inspired and that Key was cooking with enthusiasm. And at $45, this meal was a deal. Only thing: It will be served through June 3 only, so call to book a table today.
Have no fear, however, because you’ll have a chance to have your passport stamped at Key’s Tropic of Cancer dinners through July 1.
Here’s the complete schedule:
Hawaii, June 6-10
China, Cantonese, Guangdong, June 13-17
India, Gujarati, June 20-24
Cuba, June 27-July 1