Heirloom peach salad had a heap of well-dressed young greens hemmed around with wonderful peach slices mingling with thinner slices of pata negra — the best Iberian ham, made from a special breed of pigs fed on acorns. Lagniappe again — they could’ve used regular prosciutto but instead casually wafted in one of the world’s most precious foods. (Most restaurants would serve a few slices solo and bankrupt you to try it.) Alongside was a bruschetta of fresh artisanal goat cheese, while the plate wore streaks of sweet and tart glazes, orange and dark red.
The matching appetizer wine on the tasting menu was a Spanish brut sparkling wine, Mont Marçal. We also ordered two flights for the rest of us, a white and a red, with three two-ounce pours each. (I suspect a little extra came in the pours, as they lasted through dinner.) Each flight was set on a paper mat giving the names and the sommelier’s description. “Pacific Rim Whites” had something for every taste: Dave liked the gentle St. Innocent Pinot Gris, Jim and Marty favored the full-bodied Dutton-Goldfield Chardonnay, and I fell for the big tropical-fruit nose of the St. Lukes Sauvignon Blanc (“gooseberry, white currant, passion fruit”).
With the “Reds of Highway 101,” the lush Cabernet was the overwhelming favorite. “What’s this called again — John Gott?” I asked, seized by a senior moment. “Joel Gott,” Dave corrected. “John Gott is Joey’s mobster brother,” Marty said. “Well, whatever, Gott is good!” I said. An Ash Hollow Merlot was mannerly, self-effacing. Jake Ryan Cellars Zin was the opposite — aggressive, tannic, spicy.
The Armada dinner included two entrées. The first Spanish main was gambas a la plancha, the same great prawns grilled, with lush piquillo peppers and a devastating vino blanco garlic sauce. “You have to dip the bread into this!” said Dave. “It completes the dish.” He was right. The sauce was utterly sensual, an army of lightly sautéed garlic slices cooked until sweetened, but still slightly crisp, amid a jungle of fresh-minced herbs in a slightly thickened liquid that reemphasized those flavors. The prawns were fine, too, although more cooked than that ideal escabèche version. This came with an interesting white wine — a chewy Albarino. The waitress compared it to Riesling; I thought it had a creamy, cheesy undertone.
There was a little shrimp left to take home at the end of dinner. “Hey, throw in more gravy,” said bold Marty. “And more bread!” They actually did both — in fact, the chef even made extra gravy for the doggie-box. I know we weren’t busted as a review party, but the waitress did pick up that we were locals falling in love with the food, who’d gladly share our pleasure by word-of-mouth.
The Spanish meat course was delicious: Carne de Cerdo — grilled slices of pork loin, tender and rosy, with sweet-tart roasted tomatoes, capers, anchovies, and a scattering of chopped Marcona almonds. This came with a full-bodied red Rioja.
The à la carte choices were a bit of a letdown from the scintillating starters. I forgot to specify “rosy rare” when ordering the huge grilled Kurobuta pork chop, which came pink in the center and reasonably moist but ten degrees past ideal. Accompaniments were simple, flawless: creamy polenta, pancetta, wilted greens atop the pork, and in a corner of the plate, “salty caramel,” a wholly unexpected sweet butterscotch sauce.
Organic chicken breast, although boasting crisp skin, was more severely flawed by overcooking. (What’s the magic word for ordering chicken cooked to the exact moment it turns from pink to white?) It was garnished with exquisite, plump chanterelle mushrooms, the reason I chose the dish — and reason enough for the dish to exist. The poached fingerling potatoes were pleasing but the fava beans a tad too firm, as were the “spring onions,” which looked and tasted more like sliced leek greens needing more braising-time.
Meyer flat-iron steak was rare as ordered (not much to say about it...it’s just steak). The “marble potatoes” alongside (describing size and shape, not texture) were sweet treats. The asparagus spears were skinny, maybe feral. “Thin asparagus may be chic, but fat ones taste better,” Marty observed. The dips for the steak were a bright orange streak of piquillo romesco and a little salsa verde.
The Armada dessert was a Spanish-style flan, firm-textured and glazed with lemon. Either you’re a flan fan or not, and none of us are. When our excellent waitress brought out the dessert tray (by pastry chef John Gilbert), we were quite undone by the spectacle, succumbing to the other three choices. A “chocolate espresso” was a demitasse filled with wonderful bittersweet chocolate pot au crème, accompanied by a tiny, nutty muffin, tasting like homemade. A coconut-lemon puff that looked like a Hostess Sno-Ball proved a grown-up version, with a lemon glaze under a waft of coconut shreds, coconut cake, and a filling of tart-sweet citrus jam. Neither of these overdid the sugar. (For that matter, the flan wasn’t oversweet, either.) A much sweeter fourth choice married a dark-chocolate pastry, vanilla ice cream, and fruited cheesecake, for the sugarholics in the house.
Then came the pour for the Armada dessert: an amazing, clearly precious sweet wine, made from dried grapes (aka raisins), called Bodegas Toro Albalá, “Don PX,” Pedro Jimenez. It was so interesting, the waitress brought us the half-bottle to inspect, at our request. “Our sommelier — [Megan Yelenosky, a certified master sommelier] — will only open one of these bottles per night,” she said. It tasted that rare. And remember, Armada wines were only $14 for four pours. Generous is the word. You don’t feel like you’re in a Hilton, hotel of plutocrats. It’s more as though the kitchen, the sommelier, the servers, and the sunset on the waters have created a special, rarefied world of grace, taste, and indulgence. As I wrote about Molly’s a few years ago — don’t waste this one on the conventioneers. It’s for us to enjoy, too.