Updated: Sunday, April 24, 2011, 3:01 AM
At some point, the Sorcerer of Salsa's apprentices will be stepping out into the world on their own.
And in the case of this debut, set against the bland reality so prevalent in suburban dining, how lucky are the hungry folks in Fort Washington to have one of Jose Garces' top kitchen compadres land with a ceviche splash just steps from their own SEPTA station?
Muy, muy lucky is the correct answer at Cantina Feliz. That's because former Distrito chef Tim Spinner and Brian Sirhal, his childhood friend and business partner (also a Distrito alum), have brought a legitimate taste of the Iron Chef's universe to this suburban enclave where serious dining has been scarce.
At my visits, there were tiny tostada coins mounded high with a special ceviche of diced ruby tuna tossed in the sparkling tang of orange and habanero. There was creamy green guacamole jeweled with huge lumps of sea-sweet crab one night, the juicy surprise of crunchy pineapple, mango, and jicama another. We spooned through earthy bowls of guajillo-sparked tortilla soup. And those cobs of "crazy corn" elote were slathered in lime-scented mayo and a dusting of chile-powdered cheese that we found irresistible.
"This is better than my last meal at Distrito," mumbled my friend Dave between bites of ancho-crusted N.Y. strip and the dumpling-sized morsels of marrow that bobbed in his chipotle-creamed spinach.
I think he might have been letting the high-end tequila do some talking there. An ethereal snifter of El Tesoro Paradiso - Cognac-like but still bristling with herby hot agave - can be very persuasive that way.
At barely a few months old, Cantina Feliz has not yet surpassed Distrito, either in the breadth and refinement of its menu or the swagger of its demeanor; it takes a more restrained approach that shies away from Nacho Libre kitsch in favor of pleasantly festive colors, some evocative murals and masks, and Fiestaware-like plates for simple, rustic presentations.
That's not necessarily a bad thing for this suburban audience, given the recent history of this space, where Alison Barshak's Alison Two overpriced and underperformed itself into extinction.
Except for the harsh noise problem they stoked by removing Alison's carpet in favor of tile and hard wood, Cantina Feliz's arrival opens a happy new chapter here, indeed, with relatively moderate prices, warm (if sometimes overeager) service, and consistently good cooking. If I lived within 20 minutes of Cantina Feliz, I'd be downing orders of carnitas tacos with a fresh-squeezed Santana reposado margarita on a regular basis.
And yet, given the chef's career alongside Garces, from opening El Vez and Amada to helming the line at Distrito (and manning his posse on Iron Chef), the comparisons and expectations are inevitable. What does Spinner's kitchen have to say that we haven't already tasted?
So far, not much. This kitchen is going with the playbook it knows best, and so the soft-tortilla fish tacos with chipotle slaw are virtual twins to the Baja bellwethers at El Vez (though my grouper sticks here were dry and overcooked). There are coins of tender-yet-crispy-edged octopus reminiscent of Amada, but Mexicanized with some jalapeño rounds. And there are riffs on the huarache flatbreads that are a signature must-get at Distrito - topped here with artichokes and truffled potato puree; or a clever "Cubano" of pickles, Gruyère and ham.
Of course, Spinner and his crew were the ones turning these dishes out at those Garces spots to begin with. And in the teamwork creative process of a big restaurant, it can be impossible to separate out which dishes ultimately belong to whom. Except, in the grand tradition of things, credit (good or bad) ultimately falls to El Jefe: "If Jose was the octopus' head," said Spinner, "I was one of his tentacle arms."
The safe distance of its suburban locale should prevent Cantina Feliz from the immediate awkwardness of such a similar repertoire. There are far worse problems than giving your suburban neighbors a taste of some of the city's hottest menus without the commute.
But if Spinner wants to become the big octopus head chef I think he has the talent to be, his challenge will be to evolve a more distinctive voice.
His early instincts to head toward a more rustic palate are smart. The best dishes I ate here had the deepest roots in authenticity, like the amazingly tender pork carnitas, brined for two days before its slow ride in molten lard with orange juice, Coke, and evaporated milk. Shredded then crisped on the plancha, and served with little more than an avocado wedge, a splash of salsa roja, white onions and cilantro, each bite exploded like a little piñata in my mouth. The whole roasted suckling pig for four has become a popular special-order event for suburban foodies.
Littleneck clams are impossible to stop eating when simply steamed with jalapeños, wine, and cuminy crumbles of chorizo sausage. Pristine shrimp retain their tender snap, both in the terra-cotta crock of garlicky "diablo," or skewered for the grill "al carbon" basking in their guajillo marinade. (The creamy refried beans, though, do not pair well with shrimp.)
The mole was a shade on the sweet side for me as a poblano. But Spinner had recently tweaked it with more fruit like fig and cherry - in fact, bringing it closer to the manchamanteles-style ("table-stainer") mole where the sweetness is more pronounced. With that in mind, it was fantastic. The rich dark gravy covering the tender sous-vide chicken quickly shape-shifted on the palate from sweet chocolate and porty fruit to the richness of nuts and sesame, then exotic notes of cinnamon, oregano and clove, and then, finally, a rising chile spice of pasillas, mulatos, and more.
A yellow mole, whirred up from charred yellow tomatoes, tomatillos, guajillos, almonds, and corn stock, transformed enchiladas stuffed with squash blossoms and toothy zucchini into one of the more exciting vegetarian dishes I've eaten in a while.
There's plenty of room for improvement. The Cantina's soups - both the tortilla and the sweet corn - are big bowls of puree that beg for some interesting textural garnishes to make them less one-dimensional. The caldo de res stew was a bore that reminded me of beef minestrone soup (unless you add all the seasonings that come pho-style on the side). I wish the young servers would stop rolling their eyes skyward as they exclaimed - "Amazing!" - after describing every dish. The din has already been addressed, as Spinner says acoustic paneling is set to be installed by mid-May.
So much about this spot, though, is already just right. That includes some of the fancier "nuevo" flavors that remind us Spinner can dish out refinement, too, whether it's a spicy hamachi ceviche cooled with coconut sorbet, or crisply seared black bass served over addictive poblano-creamed rice filled with crab. That chile-crusted N.Y. strip with marrow-studded spinach is a tastier plate of beef than 99 percent of the area's steak houses can produce.
Surprisingly, desserts were some of the most memorable dishes. A rum- and dairy-soaked banana-coconut "tres leches" cake came with an elegantly shingled crust of caramelized bananas. A silky chocolate pudding sparked with ancho chiles and a kettle corn that tasted like Mexican Poppycock, its popcorn, peanuts, and pumpkin seeds rolled in caramel that perked with sweet and spice. Even more festive, that corn rode high atop moist brownies and a mound of decadent ice cream churned with cajeta caramel and vanilla-soaked churro fritters for the "Domingo Gigante" sundae.
Add a cherry on top, and blow the horns. The apprenticeship is over, and now the fun begins.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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