Friday, July 2, 2010
♥ and cohones!
Pura Vida always has ample free parking, a rarity in Atlanta when it comes to my favorite restaurants. On a balmy Friday evening as the sun was setting (think the start of a Top chef episode), we parked across the street and hit the crosswalk that leads right to the door. We were greeted with a smile and the percussion of Latin music. We danced our way to our table after returning a wave and a smile to chef/owner Hector Santiago. It is such an electric atmosphere. I have had a different server every visit and each has been friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, efficient and enthusiastic. I don't say this much.
We sat under the brown glass pendant lamps and noted the "rain" falling only behind one window. It must have been from chef Hector's pepper garden growing on the rooftop. I thought of those tasty peppers as I recalled Bon Appetit's 10 best roof to table restaurants list on which Pura Vida garnered a spot. I need to get another bottle of his hot sauce when I leave too.
We usually order a bottle of wine but this time we opted on a few signature drinks. The mojitos are outstanding! Ours had coconut rum, lots of muddled mint and a fresh quarter stalk of sugar cane. We also tried the mango lemonade. Rummy and mangoey as described. The bloody Maria, made with tequila instead of vodka was spicy and flavorful, a perfect match for our tapas.
On first inspection, I noticed many new items on the menu. Our server, Laura, noted that a new menu came out this week and it was "really exciting." We started with a couple of appetizers from the bar menu--a plate of beautiful serrano ham and a melon dish topped with fried jamon. Simple, sweet and salty.
Our tapas began arriving in a steady stream. Steaming coconut buns, a dish I always order, were mouth watering. I couldn't wait to taste the crispy pilon pork belly on the soft coconut pillows layered with cilantro, cabbage and a tamarind sauce. Heavenly. I love this dish especially because the tiny pickled Chile peppers come on the plate.
My mouth was happily on fire with the piquant peppers when my green papaya salad with king crab was laid before me. Great timing, as the cool, tart, crisp papaya with sweet fresh crab cooled my palate. Very tasty and refreshing. I tried on of the buenelos, puff filled with savory cheese as my table mates enjoyed empanadas with Hector's Diablo sauce and huge testones (Mayan fried plantains with chipotle honey and cilantro puree).
Our server came by to see how we were liking our dishes and we asked a few questions. She was so knowledgeable about the ingredients in each dish and drink. Even if she had not been so focused on our experience, the menu had a glossary of items that may be unfamiliar to the diner. I learned a few things on this particular evening.
The hangar steak pinchos with cilantro chimchurri sauce were a flavorsome bunch of juicy, tender meat on skewers rubbed with adobo caribe. They arrived hot. In fact, every dish came to our table hot and fresh. I noticed and appreciated as much just as I appreciated Hector's inventive and clever food prepared from local ingredients.
My apio dish was placed before me and with just a look I could tell it was going to be interesting--celery in many forms. This was my favorite of the night because by description and ingredients it was so unassuming. Crunchy celery and celery root puree gnocchi with a light sauce, layers of both flavors and textures showcases chef Hector's creativity.
Speaking of inventiveness, this incredible plate of Ahi tuna was a sight to behold. Cubes of bright tuna surrounded by lemon caviar, cilantro, a spicy aoli, coffee "dirt." I loved this playful dish for so many reasons.
A long, thin roja pizza was piping hot with roasted garlic tomato sauce and crumbles of Spanish chorizo. This would be a great option for kids but they would have to fight the adults at our table for a bite. We then shared the wahoo and chorizo skewers with banana mustard. Hot and tasty goodness with a rich, tangy sauce that seamed peculiar at first but paired perfectly. Last up, Lobster on polenta that was warm sweet and saucy.
Despite our many plates, we anticipated the dessert menu. I think we tried them all. House made ice creams tonight included guava ice cream that was buttery and peach-like in flavor, leche cream that was ice-milk yumminess and a nutty one that I never did ask about. It was the best one. The chocolate flan brulee was gone very quick as our spoons dove into it's warm, spicy chocolate middle and we ended with the chocolate tart. A perfect dark chocolate ending to a perfect dinner.
Chef hector came to our table for a visit. We chatted about the flavors, ingredients and his motto "heart and balls." His from the hip cooking with no rules, just experimental tastes makes for the best tapas in Atlanta. He is so very charming and so passionate about his craft. He told us how the Top Chef tour has been and about an upcoming demo at the Ohio State fair. He is also rather stoked about gastrotrek to Peru. He is ecstatic about the Mistura Gastronomic Festival which he described as "a foodie paradise where you can eat from one end to the other all day long" and still cannot taste everything. As the sun set we headed home discussing along the way our favorite hidden gems in each dish. Pura Vida never dissapoints.