Have you ever gone to a restaurant and felt paralyzed trying to decide what to order? Or maybe you suspected that half the dishes are only on the menu to satisfy demand , and not really reflective of the restaurant’s signature. It’s like menus are designed to make you return repeatedly to really understand the chef’s perspective. You know, “what makes this place special?”
Local food blogger, Matt Sadler, aka “The Marinara,” usually finds himself wishing he could bypass the polite formalities and just have the kitchen send out a few plates that best conveys their culinary culture and tells the unique story of their cuisine. It’s a distinctly “foodie” impulse to make this kind of request, but believe it or not, they oblige Sadler almost every time (though it may not always be convenient for the kitchen).
Lucky for you (and the chefs involved), Matt has decided to invite a small crowd for these occasions where the house distills the essence of its menu into a multi-course meal. He calls them Sunday Suppers and the first one recently went down at Bistro 27 with Chef Carlos Silva. If you’ve been to Bistro 27, then you know that Carlos has sprinkled accents from his Brazilian heritage and mentions of his mama around the diverse menu. The versatility of Bistro 27’s kitchen has earned the restaurant a wide range of fans, each finding their own favorites. Matt, for instance, is taken with the steak specials, but for the Sunday Supper, he wanted a chance to taste the Brazilian fare that Carlos seems to takes such pride in.
When the event came together, I was on hand. But, there wasn’t any steak offered. The main entree was a tongue-searing seafood stew, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Moqueca is a little like Cioppino (a red-broth catch-of-the-day chunky soup). There’s a savory broth all around the fresh mussels in the shell, shrimp with tail on (and sometimes the head too), squid ringlets, and loads of fish fillets. However, unlike the Mediterranean style tomato broth, this is made richer with coconut milk, spicier with chilis, and more fragrant with cilantro. There’s no wonder that these flavors would remain close to your heart if you were raised on them.
I wish I could go back in a time machine and eat some more of that moqueca. We all debated over which kind of white fish was featured in the soup. Huge fillets lurked beneath the surface. The fish was hearty and stayed immaculately intact, but it also absorbed all of the broth’s flavors and fell into bite-sized pieces at the end of my fork. We discounted mahi mahi right off the bat, because that’s too dense, bland, and chicken-like. Maybe snapper, rockfish, orange roughy… But when we asked the chef, it turned out to be mahi, which he says is so durable, you can cook it longer without it disintegrating. Kind of a revelation, actually. In our estimation, the more overcooked the mahi, the better the stew. I’d try this one in a dutch oven on my own stove, since it’s got that fail-safe element to it.
Although the centerpiece of the meal brought us right into Carlos’ childhood kitchen, there were other family dishes, such as his mama’s staple salad of Boston butter lettuce with hearts of palm and a decadent vinaigrette of balsamic, basil, dijon and the luxurious addition of egg yolk. A top-notch salad by this vegetarian’s standards.
Oddly, our palate cleanser was more of a head clearer as we passed bowls of tomato purée that was spiked with habanero. Over rice, it was tangy and bearable, but alone, just plain painful. I’d gladly bottle that stuff and include it in my arsenal of hot sauces, but that’s all I could think to do with it. Isn’t there always something in another person’s palate that you just don’t connect with? It makes sense, since we were there to get a better understanding of Carlos’ native cuisine, not an identity transplant entirely.
Alongside our moqueca stew, we were also served a poridge of thinned out mashed yuca that reminded me of polenta. It was perfect for soothing our slightly inflamed taste buds. And it gave Carlos another opportunity to come around telling his stories about these dishes that were important parts of his upbringing.
The end of the meal with signaled with more comfort food: custard. Not everyone gets excited about flan when they see it on a menu, but it’s such a common course in Latin and Asian cuisine, I’ve made a point of getting with the program. Carlos’ flan was as good as any I’ve had before, rich, with bigger caramel flavor than most.
Events like these are often as much about the company you wind up sitting with during the family-style meal. I got to know local Italian chef, Guiseppe Scafidi, and his wife/fiance (?) Janan while we shared some of our feelings on the food goings on in Richmond. Ed, of the now food-centric Richmond Good Life, passed a bottle of Nebbiolo to anyone seated nearby. Good elbow-rubbing, all around.
Nate Sams, the owner of the area’s only authentic New Orleans style eatery, Louisiana Flair, was among the diners. At Matt’s prompting, he casually fielded questions about the Sunday Supper he’s going to be hosting on April 16th. That one is sure to draw Cajun food fans or anyone who’s ever pined for decent gumbo in Richmond. It’s usually a special on the Louisiana Flair menu, but gumbo (or something impressive, like etouffe) will be surrounded by other special dishes at the next Sunday Supper. Now that Nate has seen where Carlos set the bar with his Sunday Supper, he won’t want to be outdone, so you might want to be on hand for that (especially since you can BYOB to the party, which will surely add another fun element to the mix).