I never thought “gourmet” and “Mexican” belonged in the same sentence. Until I had dinner at Zarela's, a Mexican restaurant which had just opened on Second Ave. back in 1987. A revelation! Zarela Martinez orchestrated textures and flavors just as artfully and lovingly as the new chefs who were redefining Manhattan’s food scene. Zarela’s fast became the Nobu of Mexican food, one of the hottest spots in town. There, I learned the magic of mole and the enchantment that truffles could lend to an enchilada.
A generation later, Aarón Sánchez, the Food Channel’s charismatic Mexican rock star chef, hopes that his new Stamford restaurant Paloma (opening Monday, July 21st, in Harbor Point) will similarly introduce Connecticut to the fire and the finesse of fine Mexican and Latin American cuisines. Revelations run in the family -- Aarón (pronounced "AH-rone") is Zarela's son.
For all his celebrity, Sánchez feels he remains not only in his mother's debt, but also her shadow.
"I honor her because she did it first," he told us when we chatted last week, a comfortable conversation marked by his humility and respect.
"I believe family is at the center of the Mexican experience."
And "Familia" informs the warmth which Sánchez hopes diners will feel and enjoy at Paloma; In fact, for his signature dish, he will feature his Grandmother's Albondigas: meatballs, shaped by hand, the beef and pork mixed with spices, poblano peppers, and mesa flower, then served with a chipotle tomato sauce, cheese and mint. As he described it to us, Sánchez literally salivated at the memory of cooking these savory morsels with his mother and grandmother in the family kitchen.
How does Aarón attend to all the obligations of the Sánchez Empire: restaurants, cookbooks, television shows, consulting, personal appearances, kitchenware, even partnering in a tattoo parlor?
"I've got a good team," he told us. "We're all a family."
Chris Bateman will work the back of the house when Sánchez is away. Bateman returns to the Stamford culinary scene after many years cooking in restaurants around the world, from Dubai to Hawaii. The Connecticut native and CIA graduate will execute such entrees as Seared Double Cut Pork Chop topped with a flavorful grapefruit mojo as well as Jumbo Shrimp, bathed in Chile de Arbol Butter. (Now we are drooling!)
Sánchez and Bateman will strive for authenticity on the menu. “No fusion” Aarón insistz. He’s even imported a wood fired South American oven to grill Paloma’s Argentine steaks and roasted meats, like they do in Buenos Aries.
The new restaurant fills the spectacular space once occupied by the Beer Garden. The glass edifice (the most stunning in Harbor Point) affords panoramic water views of the Stamford Harbor from its 250 seats. Accordingly, the menu will include an extensive raw bar and an array of Latin seafood, from ceviche to crudo.
And nothing goes better with watching a harbor sunset than sipping a sun hued latin cocktail. But if you think the national drink of Mexico is Margarita, think again. It's actually Paloma, a refreshing grapefruit tequila soda. Fittingly, “Paloma” has been anointed as Paloma’s signature drink. The cocktail is described as comprised of ruby red grapefruit and lime, mixed with Aarón's sea salt, purified water, tequila, and grapefruit crème brulee nectar -- all carbonated. Adios Margarita.
Paloma’s cocktails have been curated and created by mixologist Olie Berlic who is to Latin spirits what Sánchez is to Mexican food. Poloma’s portfolio includes a wide selection of handcrafted liquors from Latin America, including tequila, mezcal, pisco, cachaca, and rum.
For those who want to just sip and taste, Aarón will also offer a host of small plates, such as Cactus Fritters with a Chipotle Remoulade sauce, as well as Chorizo and Sweet Plantain Empanadas with Mole.
To further a feeling of Familia, a table can share Large Plates like Pollo Pibil or Tomahawk Steak which is described as being served with Chimichurri Sauce.
Sánchez is stoked by the lively Gold Coast food scene and the culinary boomtown that Stamford and Harbor Point have become. "I live in Brooklyn so I'm close by," he told us. "I'm really impressed by what BLT has done and look forward to being a part of it."
We suspect you'll have a good shot at spotting the personable Food Star on the premises when Paloma opens this weekend.
And hopefully there might even be a Zarela sighting.
For the time being, Paloma will only be serving dinner, but the restaurant will soon be open for lunch and weekend brunch.
15 Harbor Point Road (203) 998-7500 palomagrill.com
Paloma is now open for lunch.
[Photography courtesy of: Clay Williams]