It is so exciting for me when I am invited to a press dinner and the food is outstanding. This is what happened last week when I was invited by GailPR to dine at Richard Sandoval’s Pampano on the Upper East Side. I had been hearing great things about the restaurant, but had not visited. If you have not been; I suggest that you make reservations. Pampano is Mexican the way Mexican should be. This is not your boring, expected Mexican restaurant. Pampano features food from the coast with an emphasis on fish.
I arrived early at the bar. The dinner was co-hosted by Avion Tequila (which I also had not sampled). I grabbed a seat (the restaurant has a small but comfortable lounge area), my Avion silver margarita (which was delicious) and I proceeded to read A Song of Fire and Ice until everyone else arrived. One note, the lounge area was a bit hot, but then again, it has been unseasonably warm this November. Some buildings automatically turn on the heat in winter, perhaps this was the reason for the balmy heat (or maybe they really wanted me to feel like I was in Mexico). While I waited, I was given a smoked salmon tostadita. It was a small succulent bite. The salmon was gently smoked and was a lovely pairing to the Margarita. The night was starting to show some promise.
Gail moved us from the downstairs bar to the upstairs dining room. The room itself was very nice, high ceilings, white walls and a gorgeous outdoor area. Our server started us off with guacamole and smoked swordfish. The guacamole was quite pleasant and had a gentle teasing heat. This was right up my alley. The swordfish did not fit my flavor profile, but was perfectly prepared. It was slightly smoky and true to the nature of the fish without being too fishy.
The next dish we were served was a scallop on a bed of sweet potato puree. The preparation of the scallop was ideal. Nicely seared on the outside, juicy and flavorful on the inside. For me what made the dish was the sweet potato puree. I am not a fan of sweet potatoes and I found myself relishing every bite.
The scallop was followed by a butternut squash soup. Another win. The soup was accented with crispy caramelized apples that added texture and acidity. The panela cheese croutons were simply divine, they added another layer of texture and umami. I dream of this dish as I type. Courtnay Greenleaf came by to introduce herself. She is the Tequila Librarian at La Biblioteca. She came over to give us a bit more information on the tequila pairing for this course: Avion Blanco. Pairing Tequila with food can be challenging. The Blanco was clean and crispy with notes of citrus and basil. It worked very well with the dish.
A pan seared red snapper (matched with Avion Reposado) graced our table next. Again, the execution of the dish was immaculate. The skin was crispy, crunchy, delicious. The flesh was light and flaky; fresh without being boring. This was the fifth dish and I had none of that too-full feeling. The reposado was very nice and had more intricacies than the blanco. There were more aromas of red fruits to the reposado and a bit more vanilla as well. Both tequilas were incredibly smooth but still left a bit of fire on the tip of the tongue.
The risotto in the next dish was the star of the evening. Don’t get me wrong, the lamb chops (which were the protagonists in the dish) were good; but imagine the risotto as Heath Ledger in the Dark Night. Christian Bale did an amazing job, but Ledger just outdid him. Alone he would have been amazing, but you know you wanted to see more Joker. I would have this huitlacoche (a.k.a Mexican truffle) risotto any time, any place.
I was starting to get full. Dessert consisted of a bunuelo (fritter) on a Tahitian vanilla gelato with pumpkin seeds and piloncillo (panela or sugar cane paste) sauce. We also were presented with a modified version of a Sombrero cocktail called a Mexicano Blanco (made with Avion Blanco). Both were delicious separately. I am not usually a fan of sweet cocktails, but it was hard not to imbibe this one. The tequila was barely noticeable. The cocktail was sweet without being cloying. The cocoa sprinkled on the cocktail was delicate. The bunuelo worked. Fried dough, ice cream and panela. Seven year old me was in heaven.
At this point, Chef Luz Martinez came by to introduce herself. She has a sunny disposition and great energy. I can see how this energy was passed onto her dishes.
I am looking forward to trying the rest of the restaurants associated with Pampano. This is a fantastic spot with great food (and yes, great service).
Pampano is located at 209 East 49th Street, Between 2nd and 3rd Avenues
The Tequila Five Course Fall Dinner is going on now and will last through the holidays. It is $50 per person and for an extra $25, the guest can get tequila or wine pairings with their meal. (plus taxes and tips)