Recently the CTbites team previewed the menu at El Segundo in South Norwalk, the newest restaurant from the talented partners who created The Spread just up the block. The concept: Eat the Street. Intersect some of the world’s tastiest street food at the corner of Washington and North Water in SONO.
What began as a tasting quickly turned into a party ... a coming out party for Carlos Baez, Executive Chef of The Spread, one of the region’s most versatile, yet unheralded, chefs.
The menu flaunts Baez’s extraordinary range -- a gastronomic tour de force featuring over 3 dozen dishes curated from the boulevards and back allies of 27 countries on all seven continents, including barren Antarctica. (More about that selection later)
We started on the coast of Peru. A luscious ceviche arrived in its own boat, a slice of snapper cured in citrus juices, then served with red onion, hominy, cilantro, leche de tigre, and a luscious tostone. The acidity was perfectly nuanced, brightening but not overpowering the subtle flavor of the fish. Everyone in the CTbites party ranked this extraordinary plate as a favorite. Ellen Bowen of CTbites Invites has learned to appreciate ceviche in Miami where she runs a sister food blog, www.miabites.com. Bowen was impressed with Carlos’ execution of the delicate seafood dish.
“Since the fish is not cooked,” Baez told us, “it must be absolutely fresh.” So each morning, he goes to the market to bring back the catch of the day for his South American specialty.
Street food was the first fast food. At a stall, speed is of the essence. Most stoves and ovens are makeshift, prep time and space are limited, customers are in a rush, and profitability depends on rapid turnover. Since the kitchen at El Segundo is amazingly small, with scant room for storage, Carlos says that his menu reflects a similar strategy. Prep, cook, and consumption need to be swift.
Case in point, a steak on a stick from the Philippines called Nua Prik Thai Nahm Jim. That translates to quickly skewered and seared Rib Eye chunks coated with a green chili sauce. Another of our party’s favorites, the meat virtually burst with flavor and texture. The skewered steak is built for speed, designed to eat while on the run for the Filipino in a rush.
Banh Mi sandwiches from the streets of Saigon are arguably the best Vietnamese import since Pho. In his interpretation of the anything-goes sandwich, Carlos pre-preps pork liver pate and braised pork, then cradles them into a fresh French baguette, along with pickled daikon and carrots, jalapenos and cucumbers. It’s a tasty hybrid of flavors, textures and cultures: fermentation, spice, salt, paste, crunch and cushion -- France flirting with Indonesia, accented by a pinch of Latin heat.
Our tasting team was particularly drawn to most of Carlos’ Latin inspired offerings. Both Editor in Chief, Stephanie Webster, and Editor at Large, Jeff Schlesinger, gave high marks to the Venezuelan Arepa, a maize patty stuffed with braised pork, avocado, queso fresco, red onion and salsa verde. Carlos melds the complex flavors flawlessly and feels the Arepa is one of his most successful recreations. He carefully researched this classic in cookbooks and on the streets of Miami.
Little research was required for the Perros Calientes from his native Mexico, a bacon wrapped hot dog studded with diced onion, jalapeno tomato chutney, and a spicy mustard. Delicious but decadent.
Despite the award winning tacos Baez serves at The Spread, his Tacos Al Pastore at El Segundo were not my favorite menu item. That said, my overwhelming south of the border favorite was Elotes, grilled Mexican corn on the cob. Carlos frames the corn’s sweetness by anointing the kernels with his own amalgam of lime aioli, cotija cheese and smoked chili powder. Familiar, yet exotic.
“I want my foods to be authentic,” Chef Baez told us, but conceded, “With a little of my own touch.”
Carlos has received no formal training, brandishes no diplomas from CIA or Johnson and Wales, and cultivates no following. Perhaps that is why some food critics haven’t taken him as seriously as they do other culinary rock stars (even though his work at The Spread has been honored with many “Best of’s,” and he also came close to besting Bobby Flay on a Food Network throw-down.)
“My school is the kitchen,” he told us. “I learn by cooking.” Baez expanded his own Mexican culinary roots, by tirelessly working the back of the house at a variety of restaurants in Mexico City, Westchester and Fairfield Counties – French, Japanese, Middle Eastern and American. All those chefs, hours, legacies, and influences converge at El Segundo.
The spectrum of global foods means there’s something for almost everyone on the menu. Vegetarians, in particular, will find no lack of choices. For instance, Carlos elevates Harari from a workaday Moroccan soup into a silky evening stew. The blend of garbanzo and cannelloni beans makes for a comforting broth, which is both savory and spicy, complex and balanced. Another taste surprise is Korean Fried Tofu, marinated with soy and sesame, then kicked with kimichi. Israeli Hummus, scooped in a pita chip, is not as smooth as its commercial supermarket counterpart, so Baez’s spread has a unique mouth feel: chunky, robust, and fully flavored with cumin and smoked paprika.
Stephanie agrees with Jeff and myself that Carlos’ version of the Kati Roll from India -- marinated chicken and veggies in a lentil wrap -- still needed work. Carlos concurs. It bites too bland.
Months in the making, the menu remains in flux. There are 18 dishes that didn’t make the cut, but Baez is still playing them with the practice squad. Incidentally, America is represented by lobster rolls, both New England cold and Connecticut warm. (We will review them in the next Lobster Roll update.)
As for that 7th continent, Antarctica (where there are no streets, much less indigenous foods), what did Carlos nominate as a national dish? He googled Antarctica food and found spam listed (probably because of the military presence there last century). A culinary conundrum: how to make something extraordinary of this ordinary, much maligned low brow ingredient? Baez designed a Spam Sandwich, piled with seared spam and a topping of caramelized onions with a dab of mustard, all presented on a potato roll. The meat may be pure Kitchen Kitsch, but like the other fare at El Segundo, the sandwich is filled with fun and flavor, perfect for the street party that spills out into the piazza most every summer eve.
3 North Water St. - Norwalk, CT 06854