I've never been a big barnacle man. Then again, I had never tried to eat one until Douglas Rodriguez came to town, teaming the high-voltage creativity of his Nuevo Latino cuisine with the scene-savvy of self-proclaimed "El Conquistador" Stephen Starr, who wears his crown (on the menu, at least) with tongue in cheek.
Rodriguez doesn't joke about his barnacles, though. And there they were at Alma de Cuba, genuine "pico rocos." (That's a gooseneck barnacle in Pacific Canada, the only place other than Chile where the mollusk lives.)
Displayed in all its terrifying intrigue, what looked like a tiny clamshell with a beak attached to one side trailed a plume of crablike meat out the other and was perched on what looked like a hollowed-out rock filled with flan. The rock, in fact, was the barnacle's shell, and the mildly sea-flavored flan (made with barnacle juice) hid a few sweet surprises dates and caramelized onion in its custard.
It is thrilling when a chef brings diners to the brink of something scary and then reveals its beauty. Many cooks slip clumsily over the edge, especially when riding the tricky wave of a trend such as Nuevo Latino, where creativity can blossom only after the traditional ingredients are understood.
Guillermo Pernot gets it right at ?Pasion!, where Philadelphians have discovered how elegant and ornate seviches can be, as well as the wonders of tamarind-sauced fish and pig-shaped hibachis. Other local chefs have been less impressive. But Rodriguez, 36 the New York-born Godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine, who made his mark at Yuca in Miami has brought the real thing to Walnut Street from Manhattan, where he owns Chicama and Pipa.
The menu draws inspiration from Cuba Rodriguez's parents are Cuban-born immigrants though his palette often reaches beyond the island. (Hmmm ... no truffled mojos in Cuba? No foie gras mousse for Fidel?) No matter. When it works and under chef de cuisine Jos? Garces, it usually does this food can be stunning, blazing with vibrant flavors, sparkling textures, and some of the most beautiful presentations in town.
Tacolike boats made of malanga root chips bear smoked marlin salad that tingles with pickled jalapenos and exudes the irresistible sweetness of its rum-vanilla marinade. The most tender octopus I've tasted comes sliced and dusted with smoked paprika. The black bean soup is pristine bean, a bowl of darkness with a croquette of creamy rice bobbing on the surface.
Pumpkin-seed-crusted scallops pair marvelously with a silky puree of gingery pumpkin sauce. A musky adobo spice rub gives Colorado rack of lamb an exotic zing. The lechon asado, or roast pork, is not only fairly priced at $19 but also has the perfect combination of cracker-crisp skin and butter-soft meat. The twice-cooked vaca frita ("fried cow") steak was meltingly tender, its meat hauntingly infused with Cuban oregano and allspice.
Crushed plantain chips are the perfect Nuevo crust for a moist cut of halibut. Fufu a soft mash of sweet plantain is the ideal base for oysters Rodriguez, a play on oysters Rockefeller that tops a fufu-filled shell with horseradish-creamed spinach and a divinely fried oyster.
The seviches are a study in complicated simplicity, the art of spotlighting the natural flavors of each fish (or shellfish) through intricate little contrasts.
Tiny citrus-cured scallops soft as pillows slip against crackly fried shallots and a drizzle of creamy mustard, while sweet orange segments burst into a juicy, tart lime marinade. The rainbow seviche, inspired by the sushi roll, is made with a Peruvian marinade of lime juice, soy, ginger and cilantro. But the length of time each fish is marinated creates three distinct flavors in colorful tiers: a ruby dice of sesame-dusted tuna atop wide ribbons of well-cured orange salmon atop firm, white chunks of citrusy Chilean merluza bass.
Considering the effusive colors and other visual pleasures of Rodriguez' cooking, it's perplexing to experience the dreary darkroom spaces that Starr and New York designer David Rockwell took so many months and so much money to concoct. The restaurant is housed in a townhouse whose white curtains are permanently drawn shut, an awkward attempt at chic that looks more like blight from across the street. In fact, there was more Cuban soul (that's the meaning of "alma de Cuba)" in the Saigon decor of Le Colonial, which it replaced.
There are plenty of nice architectural details inside the tobacco-leaf-printed glass partition in the vestibule, the red mosaic that glows from the bar front like the tip of an embering cigar.
But the black-and-white photos of Cuban faces projected on the walls don't have much impact; they hover more like ghostly cliches banging drums, rolling cigars, posing like the Mambo King.
And the dining rooms' minimalist decor is so dimly lit (and the music so loud) that the space fades into a netherworld of anonymous design, a vanilla look that could so easily have been mango or "dulce de leche."
Rodriguez' food was not entirely the saint to Rockwell's design sins, but at least those missteps were bold. Pairing the foie gras with salty bacalao instead of something sweet was a challenge to foodies, but the salt cod was too chewy and had a brackish funk.
The "shrimp, shrimp, shrimp" would have been better as a solo act; as a trilogy (shrimp grilled whole, fried in a croquette, and blended in vinaigrette), the entree was over-crustaceaned. And the truffled mojo with seared merluza sea bass was a gratuitous waste of truffle oil.
But the food nearly always succeeded, especially the desserts. The chocolate "cigar" mousse cake is brilliant, served with a sugar-pastry "matchbook" that the server sets afire. Rodriguez' chocolate bombe ("dats da bomb") is sublime in its disguise as a mushroom. The fresh coconut filled with tapioca is wonderful.
Or I could easily do a passion-fruit-flavored Alma Colada cocktail for dessert. I tried not to drink the whole coconut-shaped cup at the bar, but it was so rich and icy and glazed with dark rum. Then, as I munched through the nest of shaved coconut tousled on top, the front door swung open, and, for an instant, the late-afternoon light flooded the room. It was indeed, I realized then, a beautiful day in Philadelphia.
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.