Chef Ryan Poli didn’t grow up eating ajo blanco. “We ate Chicken & Stars,” he says.
So his shallow bowl of silken garlic-almond soup, topped with Marcona almonds, pickled grapes and planxa-seared scallops, is, in his words, an interpretation.
Having spent his formative years in Spanish kitchens, Poli is well equipped to be liberal with authenticity. And his new restaurants, Tavernita and the adjacent Barcito, do precisely that, with a menu that nods in one bite to both Spain’s modern kitchens (alta cocina) and its classic tapas bars.
In anticipation of opening the two restaurants last year, Poli ate his way through Spain’s great food cities. Evidence of the trip is on his menu: potatoes with fried eggs and chorizo, inspired by huevos estrellados in Madrid; classic prawns a la planxa; and a litany of bread-mounted pintxos at Barcito.
Almonds are one of the Spanish pantry staples he uses with dexterity. Spain is the world’s second-largest producer of the nut, and he showcases this legacy in sauces, soups and garnishes--and as a pimentón-flecked bar snack.
Poli’s romesco recipe comes with serious Spanish pedigree: He lifted it from the mother of the Roca brothers, who run the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. According to her recipe, he fries almonds, hazelnuts, bread and garlic in olive oil until the nuts are toasted, the bread crisp and the garlic soft.
The trio is blended with piquillo peppers, red wine vinegar, olive oil and--in an arguably gratuitous tweak from Joan Roca--tomato powder, for an acidic, tomato-y kick, says Poli (click here to see the recipe).
At Tavernita and Barcito, Poli spoons this nutty orange sauce over beef-and-pork meatballs, and uses it as a base for a pintxo of escalivada (roasted, marinated vegetables) and Caña de Cabra goat cheese, drizzled with punchy Castillo de Canena olive oil made from Picual olives ($32 for 17 ounces; click here to buy).
In Catalunya, romesco’s region of origin, the sauce is served with seafood and roasted vegetables, and it plays a supporting role to the famed spring calçot, a type of wild green onion.
Blanched almonds form the base of ajo blanco, the marvelously simple soup considered to be the grandfather of gazpacho. Thought to be a culinary artifact of the Islamic Moors who conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711, its origin predates the arrival of tomatoes in Spain by more than half a century.
Poli blends the chopped almonds with water-softened bread and garlic to form a dense paste; water, olive oil and a touch of vinegar relax it into a soup.
In Andalucía, ajo blanco is a typical summertime dish, served chilled with garnishes of grapes and melon.
At Tavernita, it’s a sauce, pooled below seared scallops and scattered with its deconstructed ingredients--chopped Marcona almonds and toasted bread--and the soup’s traditional grape garnish, here quick-pickled in red wine vinegar and
sugar (click here to see the recipe).
Ryan Poli’s Shopping List
•Marcona Almonds ($37 for 2 pounds; click here to buy)
•Pimentón ($16 for 3 tins; click here to buy)
•Tomato Powder ($4.50 for 3.5 ounces; click here to buy)
•Castillo de Canena Olive Oil ($32 for 17 ounces; click here to buy)