July 26, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

La Fonda del Surprises

La Fonda’s Su Wong serves the lamb roasted on hay under a bread crust. Photo: Ellen Grimes
La Fonda’s Su Wong serves the lamb roasted on hay under a bread crust. Photo: Ellen Grimes

        First thing I notice is that La Fonda Del Sol has sprouted a colony of bright red umbrella’d outdoor tables where youthful office evacuees are paying homage to Bacchus and Venus, oblivious to the evening heat. Then I open the door. The hurricane roar in the bar is staggering.  I slither through expecting to find serenity in the carpeted luxury of Adam Tihani’s padded dining room. But it’s packed and shockingly raucous too, a leap from the funereal gloom of my first early visit in January 2009, when the market had wiped the bubbling smirks off our faces and even the affluent were eating at home.

Fluke ceviche, tuna tacos, Taylor Bay scallop in horseradish-tomato water. Photo: Ellen Grimes

        Now I’m back meeting five friends to share a special dinner the house has donated for our $3000 gift to Citymeals’ Annual Corporate Dineout. My born-critic hackles are already up. How seductive canf dinner possibly be in this clamor with so many mouths demanding the chef’s attention?  Why AI needn’t have wiggled a hackle. With the kitchen’s first feint, a trio of tapas served family style – tuna-avocado tacos, fluke seviche with pickled pineapple and teeny Taylor Bay scallops in horseradish-spiked tomato water -- chef Josh DeChellis hints at surprises to come. Snippets of herbs, aristocratic olive oil, vintage sherry vinegar, accents from light pickling, a kick of jalapeno, his vision of La Fonda is all about access to the best Spanish products and a certain playfulness he first showed at Simile, when the subject was Japan.

A wave of piggy things arrives, the potted pork terrine my favorite. Photo: Ellen Grimes

        The next wave is everything piggy: the famous ham, Iberico de Bellota, fuet (a flavorful dried sausage), and thin slices of chorizo on one platter, and on another, Serrano ham furled around white peach on roasted almond purée with roasted almonds scattered on top. “The last of the season’s asparagus with lightly smoked slices of pork belly,” the chef annotates as a chorus of servers glide in dropping off deep green spears with a judicious crunch, plus the essential Pa Amb Tomáquet – toasted tomato bread with fruity olive oil and sea salt – and a dish of Montcabrer sheep’s milk cheese with black mission figs, pouring a 1982 Pedro Jimenez sherry vinaigrette on top.

The 8 lb. monster octopus from the shallows: polpo del playa. Photo: Ellen Grimes

        The prize for me is a jar layering a potted pork and suckling pig terrine on duck liver purée under oloroso sherry jelly to smear on country toast. I suppose I wouldn’t be wrestling the enthusiast on my right to scrape the bottom of the jar had I known these are just preludes to the first act: a monster octopus, a menacing eight pounds, DeChellis confides, sprinkling it with a blend of ground pimenton, basil and chili salt then severing its limbs with a scissors.  “Be sure to use the saffron-cantaloupe sauce,” he urges. Why do I feel like a cannibal? Is it just a fleeting memory of  a late-night horror movie? The creature is remarkably tender and the suction cups are soft, almost like salmon roe. I’m popping each one on my tongue. “What matters is not how you cook it but where it’s from,” DeChellis adds. “This is pulpo del playa, from the beach.”   It definitely dwarfs perfectly fine calamari marinated with orange, chili and olive oil.

Wild striped bass roasted whole, served with soft shell crab. Photo: Ellen Grimes

        I taste a tiny quarter of soft shelled crab and a forkful of wild striped bass that has been roasted on top of local corn, green garbanzo beans and chorizo from the fish course. Somewhere on the table is Moluscada, a tomato sauce the chef says he picked up when his La Fonda boss Nick Valenti sent him to explore Spain. I’m losing track.  One bite of bass leads to another…it is so fresh, so perfectly cooked. I’ve already eaten enough and know, surely something carnivorean is on its way. Moments later, the pastry crust is ripped away from the lamb – “rack and shoulder roasted on hay in a giant casserole,” says the stately young ripper.  I can feel the heat of a flaming hulk of prime rib doused in Scotch toted by another courier, and served with a red sauce from the Canary Islands – garlic, cumin and quajillo peppers muddled in a mortar then stirred with olive oil and sherry vinegar. I must mention the cooling sheep’s milk yogurt, made in house, and tinted with powdered bay leaf that graces the lamb or the whimsical salad of pluots (plum-apricots) and hyssop.

Under the pastry seal is rack and shoulder of lamb roasted on hay. Photo: Ellen Grimes        

        Why am I writing about this when it sounds so flamboyantly couturier? Not to torture anyone. It seems that most of what we’ve eaten tonight – even the wild strawberry carpaccio finale with herb sorbet – is on the menu.  And I imagine a whole octopus can be ordered in advance. It’s listed too, “a la plancha” as a starter for one at $16. Jamón de Bellota is $18 per oz. Tapas start at $3 for the tomato bread and run up to $12 for spicy shrimp with garlic chips cooked in a cazuela. Entrées, at $26 to $39, include double lamb chop with pluots, bay leaf yogurt and summer salad.

         That Taylor Bay scallop may look familiar because it’s the chef’s riff on Rocco DiSpirito’s unforgettable version with sea urchin and mustard oil. I agree with DeChellis -- his time at Union Pacific inspired his own signature. -- that DiSpirito’s abandonment of the kitchen is a tragedy. Last time I ate DeChellis’ cooking, he was behind the counter of his little tempura bar. It seemed an odd hiccup in a voyage from summer jobs in restaurants in Western New Jersey to the CIA and an epiphany at French Town Inn “where I tasted the right olive oil at the right time and that was it. I knew what I would do.” His first stage in France was at Alain Passard three months after its third Michelin star landed. He came home from a stint at Alain Senderens’ Lucas Carton, to work with Wolfgang Puck, who had financed his trip. Then he went on to “the usual suspects” - Jean-Georges, Bouley, Charlie Trotter, then Rocco. DeChellis won raves on his own at Simile, backed by “Dreams Come True”, the Beatles of Japan, “huge foodies” who gave him an unlimited budget and financed a master’s course in Japanese cuisine. Then the Patina Group sent him off to San Sebastian and Barcelona.

         It was La Fonda’s fate to open in January 2009 just as most New Yorkers were putting a padlock on their wallets and tourists were staying home. The scene Wednesday night suggests a definite revival.

        About that herb sorbet.  Of course I feel compelled to tell the chef I hate lawn cuttings in my desserts. I expect to hate it. But the taste that fills my mouth – a mix of mint, spearmint and hyssop overwhelming the basil -- is summer, amazingly refreshing after the numbing feast. It inspires me to bite into a chocolate bonbon filled with Serrano ham cream. So call me a hopeless fuddy duddy.  It’s not for me.

200 Park Avenue, entrance on Vanderbilt at 44th 212 867 6767.  Tapas Lounge Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Brunch Saturday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dining room lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Diner Monday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday. Reservations recommended.
Patina Restaurant Group

Cafe Fiorello