A Day in the Life

January 15, 2018

These are the huevos rancheros at Atla – a pretty great way to start a New York day. I’m late to this party; Enrique Olvera’s all-day restaurant on Lafayette has been getting raves from everyone for months.  So naturally, I expected to be disappointed.

I was not.  Every bite at this small, crowded, but delightfully light room was wonderful.  Even the coffee was special:

(I’m in love with these double-walled Bodrum coffee cups.)

Tortillas were like delicate little handkerchiefs. Sauces were intense.  Avocados were ripe.  And everyone in the entire room looked happy.

These are the most elegant tlacoyos I’ve ever encountered, the little ovals of masa lighter than usual, the pea filling sprightlier than the ordinary beans.  Frankly, I wanted to stay and eat my way through the entire menu.

But I had other meals to eat.  Stopped in at Mark Ladner’s Pasta Flyer, because I’m so curious about why one of the city’s most talented chefs left high-end dining (he was the much-lauded chef at Del Posto) to serve extremely affordable food.  Fast food, in fact.

It’s served like fast food. It’s fast.  The plates are paper and the forks plastic.  But it doesn’t taste like fast food. This portion of eggplant parmigiana is $2.50.  Take it out of its paper cup, plunk it onto porcelain and it would be completely comfortable beneath elegant chandeliers.

These airy puff paste balls are rolled in garlic butter and dusted in parmesan cheese, and if I lived nearby I’d stop in every day to plunk down two bucks for a bagful. These are what I wished zeppole were when I was a kid wandering through the feast of San Gennaro.

This is not squishy spaghetti.  I don’t know how Ladner gets the texture of the pasta right, but he does.  The tomato sauce is a little sweet for my taste, the meatballs a bit denser than I’d like – but it’s hard to complain when you’re getting a substantial plate of food for $8.75.  (The meatless dishes – fusilli with pesto for example – are only $7.)

The salads are lovely.  There’s wine and beer. For the price of the sad stuff you find in deli steam tables you get a really satisfying meal. I hope more of America’s talented chefs follow in Ladner’s footsteps; this could be the future.

Zarela Martinez, of the late lamented Zarela’s restaurant, pretty much introduced New Yorkers to serious Mexican food when she opened in 1987. She sent me a note saying that Mark Miller was in town and she was giving a little party for him.  Would I drop by around 3?

I’ve known Mark since he was cooking at Chez Panisse, followed him to the Fourth Street Grill (also in Berkeley),  and cheered when he opened the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe.  But it’s been a while since I’ve seen him – and I’ve always admired Zarela.  Of course I wanted to go.

What I did not expect, however, was that I would still be there, sitting around the table, eating and drinking at 11 p.m. I shouldn’t have been surprised; Zarela is a woman who always honors an occasion.

These were the high points of a long and spectacular meal.

The most wonderful tortilla veracruzana – an incredible concoction of seafood, eggs and what must have been mountains of herbs.  I’ll be spending weeks trying to figure out how to replicate this.

A gorgeous beet salad.

Crisped pork in a deep, dense pumpkin sauce.

A layered confection rich with cheese and whole kernels of huitalacoche (that would be corn smut to you).  Truly spectacular.

The most refreshing salad of pineapple, chiles, cilantro and onion. Eat this once and you’ll begin to crave it.

Zarela certainly knows how to throw a party.  And her food is the real thing; if you’re interested in her recipes, she’s written a number of excellent cookbooks focusing on regional Mexican food.

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