09 September 2008

Well, hello!

It's been a little while; I took a weekend trip to New York and got back in school yesterday, so schedules have been tumbling around and crystallizing. The good thing is that my girlfriend-who-doesn't-know-she's-my-girlfriend, Gloria Steinem, wrote an article about Sarah Palin, and it was nothing short of kickass. More good news: I definitely won't be short of things to talk about; in fact, I'll bullet them out now so that, as I catch up with everything, I won't forget:
-lunch at Max Brenner's
-breakfast at Sip
-mushroom brie cheese
-superb macaroni and cheese

But for now, I'm going to talk about Criolla's, where I had dinner on my last night in Florida. Rather than get entrees for everyone, we split into two "teams," if you will, and ordered an inordinate amount of appetizers. On the menu for us:
West Indies crab & Johnny's guacamole with tropical root crisps
Griddled black bean queso cakes with tomatillo-avocado salsa
Flash-fried domestic calamari, island-spice dusted, with Creole mustard and key lime aioli
Criolla's Caesar salad with Cascabel Chile dressing, cumin flatbread, Dry Jack cheese, and applewood smoked bacon

I wanted so badly to get the plaintain-encrusted fried oysters with green tomato chutney, marinated cabbage, grilled cornbread and coconut creme fraiche, but alas, it appears that oysters aren't as agreeable to everyone as they are to me. As for the entrees, there were some tempura-fried Maine lobster tails on a sweet pea risotto cake and served with heirloom tomato jus that sounded divine; how could it not when it was a culmination of tempura, Maine lobster, sweet peas, risotto, and heirloom tomato? Given, I've never thought too heavily about the idea of fried lobster, nor of the idea of risotto in a dense cake form, but I can't imagine it would be possible for anything to go too terribly wrong.

So back to my praise, critique, and analysis. The crab was in the form of a dip -- a yellow one, curried, at once spicy, sweet, and creamy. I love crab, but I have to say that I'm a bit of a purist, or at least a traditionalist, and a devout New Orleanian at that; as such, I have a hard time enjoying crab when it strays too far from its perfect form, unless we're talking about the fried softshell crab po-boys at Jazz Fest or numerous other decadent New Orleans creations. Nonetheless, I am sure now that crab shouldn't be combined with curry. Like steak and ice cream, they're both amazing on their own, but shocking and offensive when combined. The guacamole, however, was to die for, and I'm such a freak for foods' consistencies that I seldom like the mushiness of guacamole. The chips were fried, paper-thin slices of "tropical roots" (which roots, I do not know), perfectly salted, and they were divine.

The queso cakes were... alright. A little bit grainy and just a bit bland for my taste; I would've loved just the slightest hint of jalapeno baked into the cakes. As it were, they tasted exactly how they sounded -- like warm black beans with a small core of melted white cheese and some cornmeal thrown on for kicks -- and left very little to the imagination. Swished around in the salsa, which looked like a thinned-down version of guacamole, they were infinitely more enjoyable, though still probably my least favorite dish of the night.

I have to admit that I was very bitter when I started eating the calamari because, as I said, I was so eager to have the plantain-crusted fried oysters, but my mother made the spur-of-the-moment decision to get the more innocuous calamari instead. They didn't knock my socks off (I don't think it's possible to do a truly OUTSTANDING version of something as simple and as relatively common as fried calamari), but the delicacy of the batter and the combination of flavors -- key lime, island spices, and that Creole mustard I know and love so well -- was harmonious and delightful. Like designer potato chips, though, they were ultimately unremarkable, despite how easy it was to eat them ceaselessly.

For me, the Caesar salad truly stole the show -- and that's saying a lot for such a simple salad, but I guess the originality lacking in the calamari took center stage with the salad. It wasn't even like any Caesar I'd had before; imagine it as the Caesar's sultry and enigmatic older sister, who has exotic coloring and knows how to tango. The dressing, first of all, could be bottled and sold as shampoo; I'd buy it simply because it's invariably flawless -- smoky, spicy, warm and autumnal. Bottom line: it tastes like hearth and woodburning ovens and smoky little chiles. I didn't even try the flatbread, but the cheese, which was nutty and hearty with a bit of grit, was a perfect complement to the dressing, and the bacon (I don't even like bacon!) added an ideal crunch and an extra layer of substance. Toasted pumpkin seeds made it feel like a true present.

We were all so sated that by the end of the meal, none of us really wanted dessert. However, being the true dessert aficionado that I am, and given the fact that one of my major criteria for a good restaurant is a great dessert menu, I needed to at least see it... but you know how that goes. I laid eyes on the chocolate gateau with ice cream of the day and raspberry coulis and couldn't pass it up. This is one dish that requires no innovation, no excitement, and no creativity to satisfy me -- all I need is mastery, and the dessert chef at Criolla's definitely had that to spare in this case. The chocolate ice cream was so creamy and smooth; the coulis waxed fudgey in its perfection; and the cake was the awe-inspiring combination of textures, consistencies, and nuances that it should be at its best.

All in all, a good meal for me and a great meal for Grayton Beach. I wouldn't describe it as the "cutting edge, dazzling" cuisine as it has been described, but it was undoubtedly a nice change from the Italian and Asian fusion foods I'm so used to, and in a town that has, I'd guess, 8 restaurants, Criolla's is definitely worth a return trip.

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