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By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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People come and go quickly in the food biz, so it's no big deal that Pepe Freixas, Victor Passalacqua, and chef José Charles left La Dorada, the wonderful Spanish seafood house in the Gables, to try the same recipe again at a new Spanish restaurant called Navarra. Two things do come as a surprise: One is that Freixas, along with Pepe Torrens (of La Bocateria), opened Navarra just a few storefronts away from La Dorada, the other is that fine-dining finesse seems to have been left behind.
To be fair Navarra doesn't try to be an imitation of that other Spanish restaurant. In fact the look is totally different. A wrought-iron gate leads into a 90-seat dining room with crimson-color walls, dark mahogany-stained moldings and panels, formal white table settings, and the luminous glow of candlelight. It's the old-fashioned generic replica of a romantic Spanish restaurant; the only things missing are framed posters of bullfights on the walls (in their place are oil paintings). A middle-age, Spanish-speaking Gables crowd didn't seem to mind the décor at all, and they liked the live music, too: A gentleman at an organ softly played schmaltzy love songs. I could have made it through my meal without this particular serenade, but hostess Yanels Cortez, who came out to sing later in the evening, had an unexpectedly beautiful voice.
The cuisine also departs from that at Dorada, focusing not on seafood but on the gastronomically blessed region of the restaurant's namesake, Navarra. The fertile valleys of this area, located in the northeastern interior of Spain, produce some of the nation's finest fruits and vegetables, a few of which are available in jars, along with other specialties, in the eatery's vestibule. White asparagus and piquillos are the most esteemed of these imports. Navarra's menu doesn't showcase the piquillos, small red peppers that taper to a peak (thus their name), or any other peppers, which are integral to Navarran cooking. It does, however, include white asparagus, puréed into a soup or as an appetizer of five fat spears straight up. The latter were luscious, though the lemon-garlic infused mayonnaise sauce and tangy pink sauce on the side tasted like mayo and pink mayo.
A very filling appetizer was the menestra de tudela, which would probably be more appropriate as a main course. Traditionally this is a casserole of lamb stewed with fresh broad beans, garlic, mint, saffron, almonds, artichoke hearts, boiled eggs, and white wine. Navarra's version offers cubes of tender lamb with peas, carrots, onions, potatoes, white asparagus, and canned artichoke hearts in a tomato base; in other words, take away the last two ingredients and you've got Mom's lamb stew. It was tasty, but the traditional sounds far more fetching.
Lamb also comes in the form of broiled chops with "unique seasonings": oil, garlic, and white wine. Other carnivorous courses include grilled veal chop, a pork loin over cabbage and sausage, and three cuts of aged prime beef. Prices for the red meats run from $24 to $28, less for other main courses; the most expensive seafood dish, fish of the day cooked in a sea-salt crust, is $24. That fish, by the way, was dorada.
Sea salt likewise encases the lowest priced entrée, chicken "baked in its own juices with laurel, thyme, oregano, garlic, and lemon" ($16). The half-chicken did retain its moisture, but it was a skinny bird, not perfumed with fresh herbs and lemon but topped instead with onions and peppers. Even with garlicky green beans and boiled potatoes on the side, it wasn't worth the show of having the waiter bring a large tray tableside to crack open the crystal-salt shell.
Rabbit is more likely than chicken to be found on a Spanish dinner plate. They thrive in the arid sectors of Spain's terrain, and because of their abundance, the least wily of them became a staple of the country's diet. I'm usually queasy about eating these cuddly critters, but after reading food historian Waverly Root's observation that "rabbit can serve as a touchstone to separate food snobs from those earthy characters who really like to eat," I was determined not to let some guy named Waverly call me a snob. So I ordered Navarra's wild game rabbit, which gets marinated in red wine and herbs, then slow-roasted with fruit juices. (This same process is used for the menu's two alternate "exotic specialties of Navarra": pheasant with ham and vegetables, and wild pig with cinnamon and apple.) Rabbit is the other other white meat, and it's never prepared with the skin on, so often it gets dry and stringy from overcooking. Not this one, which was delicious and, yes, did taste like chicken -- actually, like coq au vin, with whole mushrooms and flecks of onions and carrots in the wine-based brown sauce. A small scoop of sticky white rice came on the side.
Writer Luis Antonio de Vega, upon eating the regional specialty of trout with cured ham, declared that "Navarra has taught the world how to eat trout." I don't think Luis would have said the same thing had he sampled the version served here. The trout just tasted too fishy, either because it wasn't of high quality, or maybe because it sat in a pool of seafood-imbued oil.