Small plates, tapas, piatti piccoli - my favorite style of eating in any language, but Spain is definitely the place that put it on the map. What better way to enjoy a meal than by tasting a small portion of several different wonderfully flavored dishes in one sitting. Just add great friends and a few bottles of wine and you have the perfect experience!
We did just that last Saturday night at an amazing dinner at Rio Mar, Chef Adolfo Garcia's restaurant in the Warehouse district of New Orleans. The seafood-centric menu, infused with Spanish and Latin American flavors, puts the fresh seafood of the Gulf, and points beyond, at center stage.
We had a large group and were given a table right by the kitchen, so it seemed fitting that we should try the Chef's Tasting Menu that is available for parties of 10 or more. It includes a sampling of 7 appetizers, 6 desserts and choice of select entrees all for $38 per person. Chef Adolfo was in the house that evening and his watchful eye surveyed every plate that came out of the kitchen, all presented beautifully at our table.
Being in this business makes you a very picky wine drinker and the perusing of a wine list can sometimes be painful. But Rio Mar's offered a variety of food friendly wines at great price points, many of which we carry in the shop. The majority were from Spain, a few from Argentina and Chile with the required sprinkling of California, Washington and Oregon. To pair with the variety of seafood apps and entrees, I chose two of my favorite Spanish whites, an Albarino and a Txakolina. The Brandal Albarino offers a soft, roundness with a slight saline backbone that holds up to the weightier fish and crab preparations while the zesty Ameztoi Txakolina with it's slight effervescence offers the perfect accompaniment to the lighter shellfish dishes.
Starting with the tart and tangy Brazilian Caipirinha cocktails, the highlights were many but here are a few of the standouts. The Baked Oysters Rio Mar (see Chef Adolfo's recipe at the end), prepared with local oysters, spinach, chorizo and manchego cheese, offers a completely different take on the traditional New Orleans preparation. The mussels were delightful and again the use of chorizo and garlic in the broth added great texture and spice. I ordered the Grilled Drum Escabeche for my entree that was deliciously fresh and topped with a melange of peppers, olives and a crunchy caper relish. One of my absolute favorite Latin desserts is Tres Leches, translated as "three milks" because the cake is soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream when combined, create just the right sweetness, density and mouth feel for a rich cake, making it moist but not mushy. It's then topped with a cloud of vanilla cream and drizzled in caramel, and the Rio Mar version also adds a touch of coconut.
The meal and experience were incredible, from the creative hot and cold apps, deliciously fresh drum and the sweet finale of desserts; we left completely satiated. Chef Adolpho was, and always is, a gracious host who makes you feel welcome and at home in his casual, distinctly Latin dining room. If you've never been there or haven't been recently, you need to go, take a large group of friends and order the Chef's Tasting Menu with a few bottles of wine. I promise you won't be disappointed!
Here's Chef Adolfo's fabulous recipe for Baked Oysters Rio Mar:
24 shucked Gulf oysters
2 cups cooked spinach
4 links ground Spanish chorizo
3 T chopped garlic
½ med chopped onion
½ c bread crumbs
½ c grated Manchego Cheese
salt and pepper
Brown chorizo with onions and garlic in a little olive oil. Cool mixture. Chop cooked spinach and add most of the cheese and breadcrumbs. (Save a little to top off before baking) add cooled chorizo mix and season to taste
with salt and pepper.
In individual ramekins or a baking pan half fill with mix and put oysters on top. Cover with remaining mix and sprinkle with rest of breadcrumbs and bake in 400 degree oven till brown.