Friday, February 15, 2008

LOCO, I think I love you...

Dearest LOCO, beloved to me in the way you seductively offer the convenience of providing gourmet cuisine at only an arm’s length distance…You are my one and only amore to which I would like to dedicate this voracious Valentine’s Day greeting. I am not ashamed to say that you make me want to be a better diner. I vividly recall our first date several months ago: you were a younger and smaller restaurant then, located on a more tranquil side of town (Easton, Route 138) and tucked away into that quaint little shopping plaza which you called home. You showed gusto, however, when you represented yourself to local patrons as an authentic, upscale Spanish restaurant. Some skeptics laughed and believed your stay woule be ephemeral, but, like a smitten suitor, I dutifully remained by your side. After all, I found your sleek, intimate interior, your superior service, and your flavorful fare to be charming and intoxicating.

I must apologize, however, for the months that passed whereby not a morsel of food traveled from your plates into my mouth. Now that your one year anniversary has come and gone, I can see how you’ve grown and matured. Your owner, Jim Messinger, has wisely re-located you to a larger and more convenient space across town on Route 106 (near Five Corners) that is befitting of your many talents. Your allure, however, has largely remained intact: from the dark red-splashed walls to your genial, attentive wait staff, you haven’t changed one bit.

If there would be one major obstacle in our relationship that I could pinpoint, it would be the way in which you periodically tease me. Why must you insist on keeping me waiting forty-five minutes on the most romantic evening of the year when I had made reservations well in advance? Your friend, Jim, had shared with me in past conversations that he was working on developing a system to drastically reduce your wait time, but apparently there still exists a 2-hour wait on Friday nights. I will forgive you, however, given the dearth of fine dining establishments in the area. Clearly, you’re in demand, and not just the object of my affections. Sharing you with others makes me jealous, you know. At least you promptly e-mail me back when I have questions about your menu, I’ll give you that. You’ve always been courteous to me.

I also have just a couple of minor quibbles about your more new space. First, the expanded lounge area proved difficult to navigate through, particularly with traffic lines of customers occupying this area. I felt like a rat in one of those endless mazes, breathlessly weaving in and out amongst a plethora of leather seats and plastic tables. Second, due to a lack of a partition between the bar/lounge and main dining areas along with your high ceilings, the acoustics made it virtually impossible to conduct a conversation without resorting to shouting.

But let me take a moment to praise your many attributes, beginning first and foremost with the quality of food that comes out of your kitchen. My compliments to your Executive Chef, Melissa Batty, who utilizes relatively simple ingredients (such as olive oil) to create complex, savory dishes. Take, for instance, your fine selection of tapas calientes (hot tapas), specifically the patatas bravas. Merely fried potatoes, a mere foodie novice would assume. However, one bite reveals the potato’s slightly crisped (just perfect) exterior along with its moist, warm, cakey interior (even more perfect). Batty’s decision to cook this potato in olive oil makes these fried concoctions that much easier on the stomach. The lemon allioli garnishing these potatoes is also a refreshing touch: it cleanses the palate and compliments the mild spiciness of the accompanying tomato sauce. The fabada, though a smaller tapa portion, is an austurian stew whose white beans might be the largest I’ve ever seen (yes, you could say that they amount to a hill of beans) and whose base is light and zesty. The seared foie gras, playfully served alongside a grilled pear, buttery croutons, and a miniature apple, is mouthwateringly soft and scrumptious. My one complaint about this dish is its miniscule portion. Between my wife and I, we took no more than six bites of this delicacy before it vanished altogether from our plates.

One down note to the food festivities: prior to re-connecting, promises were made to me insisting that your rioja braised beef short ribs were divine. I must therefore express my disappointment at the relative blandness and fatiness of the meat. The caramelized root vegetables were visually evident on the ribs but lacked any substantive flavor. Shitake mushrooms alleged to be an ingredient were all but missing in action. The amount of fat on the ribs was extensive, and I felt like a jilted lover when faced with the need to adroitly cut away this extraneous residue in a small bowl and a poorly lit area, neither of which was conducive to using utensils. I don’t believe in cheating, my darling, but at that moment, I pondered leaving you for another dining destination. Your friend, Jim, however, convinced me not to break up with you, assuring me that we must order either the paella or the salmon (given that this is shipped three days in advance of most fish on the market, he claims it tastes as if it came right out of the ocean) during our next visit.

But like an aged wine, you improved over time. Particularly when it came to your exquisite desserts, my sweet. The peras al vino was simple but elegant, just like you. The warm pear poached in white wine and cinnamon was a light treat. I also indulged in your signature chocolate flan, which surprised me again and again with its potently sweet, dense, custard-mouse combination of dulce de leche and cocoa nibs. The flan was indisputably one of the most unique and memorable concoctions I’ve ever had the fortune of tasting.

Like every couple out there, we’re bound to have our disagreements, but at the end of the day, it’s you, and no one else, with whom I’d rather be spending my meals. LOCO, I’m crazy about you, and I think you’ve got great legs – that is, when it comes to my outlook on your long-term success in the town of Easton.