By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Aperitivos appeared: tall shooters of warm leek soup dressed only in jalapeño sliced thin as paper, brought standing tall on the waitress's tray.
"From the kitchen," she said. "Do you have any questions about the menu?"
We didn't. Our ordering had actually been planned out days in advance, Laura and I each gravitating toward personal favorites and special flavors with the ease of two people who've been doing this sort of thing for far too long. I ordered a first round of pintxos and small plates while she sipped her soup. She amended the order while I shot mine, closed my eyes and recalled sweetly why, sometimes, an amuse bouche can be a great idea. When it's not just a way for some prep cook to show off, or a stall by a buried kitchen, but used as a flirtation, a tease — a goad to the appetite, like a culinary lap dance — the amuse can be a wonderful thing. And this was: two swallows of a soup that could very easily have been put into standard rotation on the regular menu, perfectly in keeping with the style laid forth by the spread of small plates, large plates and snacks. It was delicious, creamy, warming, comforting and tormenting all at the same time. I wanted twenty more, lined up in a row, ten before me, ten before Laura. I wanted to make a drinking contest of them — first one to pop loses.
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But there was no time for that, because more food began arriving. At the moment, the kitchen was cooking just for us — which meant, essentially, that Curt was cooking just for us: holding down the line, taking orders, working the pans, humping the fryers, finding moments to step out and survey the floor in his chef's hat and immaculate whites, wondering, no doubt, where his rush was and why his kitchen was so quiet. When we'd talked before the official opening of Ondo's, he'd told me that he wasn't going to hire a chef, wasn't going to bring in someone to do the grunt work or watch the plates for him. He and Deicy had the skills, after all. They had the passports, the five years in their rearview, Arzak on their resumés. Who else would be able to do the work as well as they could all by themselves?
The first dish I'd ordered was the Tortilla Española, an omelet of eggs and potatoes, something so simple and so basic yet so fundamental to the soul of classical Spanish peasant cuisine. But an omelet can also tell you many things about a cook and a kitchen. It's one of those plates that a French chef will use to test the chops of his commis. Make an omelet, he'll say, and then he'll watch while the commis fucks it all up; watching, really, to see the care with which he makes his mistakes, the concentration he lends to the eggs, the whisk, the pan. At some of my first cooking jobs, omelets were what I did — all night, every night. In later years, omelets were what I would cook for myself at the end of the night, a sponge to soak up the evening's excesses. It is the tamago egg omelet that an aficionado of sushi will order first at any new sushi bar in order to judge the skills of the rollers behind the counter. It was an omelet that Secondo made for his brother, Primo, at the end of Big Night, silently, by way of apology and comfort.
I watched as Ondo's version came to me from the kitchen, weighing it by eye. It was a big omelet, fat and beautiful, not cold, not too hot, neither too dry nor too runny, touched with perfect, delicate brown sears on the outside edges, folded in on itself and resting on a single slice of oiled and toasted bread. I cut a mouthful, dragging it slightly through a line traced in reduced, sweet balsamic vinegar, and ate. The chunks of potatoes were soft. The eggs were excellent.
I could have ended the meal right there. I've always believed in the omelet test in its many forms; have been a devotee of the notion that a cook who can focus on and care about the simple things is a cook who will bring that same dedication to the more complicated tricks and maneuvers of the profession. On a quiet night in Cherry Creek, while parties rolled on next door (loudly enough that I could hear them through the wall shared by Tambien and Ondo's) and his own dining room lay in silent desolation, Curt Steinbecker had made me a perfect omelet for no other reason than I'd asked for one, for no other reason than doing it right is what a good cook does. But the meal didn't end there, of course.
A plate of unadorned Ibérico ham, rosy pink against the white china, veined with white fat. Patatas bravas with romesco, the chunks of potato looking as though each one had been individually hand-fried, babied, coddled, brought out of the oil at just the right moment and then piled up around a bowl of gentle, orange romesco sauce more savory than spicy, tasting of tomato pulp and paprika. A bowl of croquetas, made with Serrano ham, breadcrumbs and cream sauce, fried golden-brown and served still steaming at the table, followed by another bowl just because the first one was so good and gone so quickly. The courses came scattered, well-timed by the servers, occasionally walked across the floor by Curt himself, cut loose from the kitchen and coming to check in on us. There was an art to the ballet of plates — not perfected yet, but there in a rough form, set to a rhythm not of clocks, but of impressions, of weighing appetites and speed of digestion by eye. Sometimes fresh plates would arrive just as we were finishing the previous course. Once or twice we were asked whether we wanted to keep the single crust of bread left alone on a side plate.