About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Day in Flagstaff (Part 3): Criollo

After getting my Sam's Club big-box shopping done, and barely fitting it all into the truck (I can't believe how many times I have said "I need a bigger truck" since upgrading to my current 1-ton, crew-cab, Chevy  dually) I headed over to meet with Chef Dave at Criollo.
Dave and I have been doing business for years, since he started at Criollo's sister restaurant Brix. He and some of his crew have visited us at the Ranch but I had never had the chance to visit Criollo until today.
Dave had informed me that, based on reservations and the previous night's numbers, that tonight was shaping up to be their busiest night of the whole season so, even thought it was still pretty early, it was with some trepidation and guilt that I entered the restaurant and asked if Dave was available.  Within seconds he emerged from the kitchen and after a firm handshake and greeting asked if I'd like a tour.
Of course I did but certainly didn't want to impose on such a big night.
"Bah".  he said "Let me show you around".
The kitchen was humming with activity.  Every station was manned and every person was busy working on the various tasks at hand.  The pace of the room was frenetic but organized and focused.  Nobody was running around.  Nobody was yelling. People were moving with great speed and efficiency but there was no sign that the coming deluge of orders would be met with anything less than professionalism and expertise.
And it smelled great in there! 
As we passed through the main line area and into the back, we moved carefully.  Nearly every flat surface was covered with plates and pans and trays of prep and mise-en-place.  This crew was ready to rock.
Dave showed me the bakery/prep area and we ducked into their big walk-in cooler (as much to get out of the kitchen's bustle as anything, I think) and he pointed out where they had actually joined together what had been one walk-in refrigerator and one walk-in freezer to make one very big fridge.  Being a restaurant that makes everything from scratch and primarily from fresh local ingredients, they had no use for the big freezer, and had desperate need for more cooler space.  Even so, it was still stocked from floor to ceiling with shelf after shelf of absolutely gorgeous produce, meat, fish and dairy products.
Dave was living a chef's dream by obtaining all of these exceptionally fine raw materials to work with. I spotted several 4 lb tubs of our BMR Fresh Goat Cheese on a shelf and couldn't help but smile at the good company they were keeping.
Tour over, Dave asked if I could stay and have a bite to eat.
"Seriously? What about the busy night ahead"? I asked
"We've still got a little time before the rush hits" he allowed, "Just sit at the bar and we'll fix you up".
And fix me up they did.
The bartender asked me what I wanted to drink.  Automatically (and rather foolishly as it turned out) I asked what he had in a good Pinot Noir by the glass.  [Note to self: When trying out a new restaurant for the first time at least take a look at the wine list before ordering].
Criollo, while having a very nice, well considered and constructed wine list, does not have a single pinot noir to offer.  As a matter of fact, there were none of the come-to-be-expected wines one typically finds.  No wines from France, Italy or even California.  This is a "Latin inspired, hand-crafted, local food" restaurant so, quite rightly, the wines are primarily from Spain.
Knowing virtually nothing about Spanish wines I put myself at the bartender's mercy.  "Well, you know the type of wine I'm thinking about.  What do you recommend?"
Without hesitation he pulled up a bottle and poured a healthy glassful.  "Here.  Try this".
Zowee! Not a pinot noir at all, and yet similar in many regards, it was perfect.  To my shame I did not note the vineyard, grape, or year of it.  I'll chalk that up to it being the end of a long day.  I ended up drinking two glasses of it and now have a piqued interest and new appreciation for wines from Spain.  I will definitely be trying more of them as the opportunity presents itself.
Soon after settling in with my first glass of wine, a server brought me a delicious plate of food.  It was their Pork Belly Tacos.  While the menus changes almost constantly, there are a few things that have earned a regular place there.  The Pork Belly Taco plate is one.
It is described on the menu as "slow roasted Heritage Foods pork belly, cabbage, house pickles, mild salsa, jalapeno glaze" and is served with the crispy pieces of pork nestled in freshly-made tortillas.  The house pickle slices were not overly vinegary and provided a sweet, cooling counterpoint to the spicier components on the plate.  Definitely finger-food I built up each soft taco using a little bit of everything offered on the plate, saving a thick dab of the house-made salsa for the top.
Oh my!  Good eating!  Everything melded together and yet it was easy to pick out each part as it contributed to the whole. 
The salsa was a real surprise.  I was delighted to find that it was much warmer on the tongue than I had expected from the "mild" description on the menu and yet sweet with an amazing depth of flavor.  I poured a bit more on the taco, and then a bit more.  Completely addictive.  Realizing that I had almost used my entire allotment and was only half way trough my dinner, I embarrassedly asked it it would be possible to get another small bowl of it. Of course it was!  I later learned from Dave that, among other ingredients it included fresh habaƱero chiles and that raisins provided that alluring touch of dark sweetness.
Nearly done with my dinner, Dave returned with a friend and introduced me to Steve, the chef de cuisine at Brix restaurant.  We've been selling cheese to Brix since they opened over 6 years ago.  The owners Paul and Laura visited the Ranch even before they opened while exploring possible ingredient sources for their first menu.  Anyway, I've worked with Steve for years, trading emails and phone calls, but had never met. Unfortunately, we were only able to chat briefly as he was just passing through on an "anchovy run" and on his way quickly back to Brix, where they were also expecting a record-breaking night.
After that wonderful plate of tacos and that great wine, I was certain that I didn't need anything else but when the bartender asked If I wanted dessert, I had to ask.  "What do you recommend?"
"Banana Rum Bread Pudding".  Not even a beat of hesitation.
"That good"?
"That good".
"OK, I guess I'll have to try it then".
And he was right.  Again.  Served hot with Vanilla Whipped Cream and a very tasty Caramel Rum Sauce it was just right.  Moist without being gummy; sweet without being cloying and with a punch of fresh banana that said that the cook who made it actually knew the difference between a black-ripe banana, and a black-rotted one.  A fine line many cooks do not understand.
With the day gone and a long drive back to the ranch still ahead of me I reluctantly asked for my check.  I could have settled in at Criollo, very comfortably for the rest of the night. 
I am often offered discounts at the restaurants where we do business.  It's a perk of doing business with good people.  At Criollo they wouldn't take any of my money at all so I tipped shamelessly and, after waving a heart-felt good-bye to Dave (who was starting to get a bit busy by then), left and headed home to unpack the day's purchases and eventually to sleep.

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