Like most American food writers, chefs and generally food-obsessed folks, I have a severe case of Europe envy. That is to say, I envy Europeans' relationship with food, the way they revere ingredients, the seriousness with which they take eating and drinking. Here in America, no matter how many restaurants and markets succeed in importing authentic European flavors, the true European experience -- the long lunches, the casual feasts, the easy, fluid way that food means everything at the same time as being no big deal -- seems to elude us.
Our inability to capture the essence of European eating is not for lack of wanting. If there's one trend that has illuminated this yearning, it's tapas. In Spain, tapas are served as tastes to accompany wine, and the imagery they conjure, of candlelit rooms full of laughing friends whiling away the evening drinking and eating and talking, is irresistible. We want that experience, we yearn for it, and increasingly, restaurants are providing the food that might allow us to get it. But we thwart ourselves at every turn, our stubborn American sensibilities limiting us to conventional American restaurant behavior.
It was these thoughts that bothered me as I sat and ate at Pura Vida, the Poncey-Highland tapas spot that has grown steadily in popularity since its opening a few years back. There is a lot to love about this restaurant. The food is almost always good, and is made with a measure of soul that is impossible to fake. Chef Hector Santiago infuses his menu with Spanish flavors that have been filtered through the culture of South America, bringing a brightness and a tropical edge that warms the cuisine. Pura Vida is a true neighborhood restaurant, chef owned and community based. Add to that the fact that it is hard to spend much money here -- I have tried, gotten stuffed, and failed a few times -- and you have a favorite in the making.
But my Europe envy kicked into high gear while eating at Pura Vida. Where were the groups of friends, the raucous wine drinkers? Where was the party? At first I thought the problem was the décor, and that the wood and concrete created an atmosphere that was too somber. But then I realized that it was the tables full of quiet diners, of which I was one, and I wondered how many other tables were searching, like me, for that great social meal, that great social restaurant.
Because this food is social food, perfect for sharing and worth celebration. Pick a ceviche, any ceviche, and you will be treated to bold, fresh contrasts. The tuna ceviche neotradicional is an offering of lime-marinated ruby slices of tuna with a fruity Peruvian pepper foam. The ceviche con leche is tilapia strips, again marinated and imbued with tart lime, swimming in a creamy juice and peppered with sweet and spicy chilies. For a measure of savory crunch, the dish is garnished with cancha corn: delicious, nutty, toasted corn kernels.
Santiago executes a few wonderful riffs on bar food, again inviting us to have fun with our meal. Calabaza rings are tempura-fried rings of butternut squash, both sweet and crispy. Yuca croquettes with avocado aioli resemble steak fries and are served Belgian frites style, upright with the aioli on the side for dipping. As snack food or side, they are a delight. Mi media noche are basically bite-size Cuban sandwiches, with tender pork, ham and cheese pressed in a pineapple bun.
It's hard to go wrong with the stewed meats, as well. Duck layered with caramelized plantains is rich, sweet and earthy, and the slow-cooked beef, a joyful Latin take on barbecue comprising orange and chipotle, is not to be missed.
There are some dishes that were met at our table with less enthusiasm. The salt cod canelones with a truffled cream sauce is only for the true lovers of salt cod, not for those who prefer the fishiness cut with potato or acid of some sort. And on the dessert menu, cookie nibs served with foie gras genache is too meager, lacking the rich decadence of either chocolate shortbread or foie gras. But, oh, the chocolate-ancho chili flan brulee -- for a dish that sounds like it has an identity crisis, it is harmoniously tasty in every rich and creamy aspect.
I have discovered that the answer to my problem -- the longing for an atmosphere to match the festive nature of the food -- is to come on a night when the management provides an excuse beyond the food to let loose and have fun. Friday nights have been deemed "Fiesta Fridays," and there's a DJ to make sure we really do fiesta. Monthly Latin Table dinners offer Chef Santiago a chance to experiment and connect with the diners, and there is sometimes a raucous good time to be had.
South America is another continent where dining is an act of passion, where family and friends rarely eat in small groups at quiet tables. We can learn a lot from these cultures. Perhaps Pura Vida can help teach us. There is no doubt in my mind that Hector Santiago intends for his food to be met with celebration.