Desperately seeking authentic Latin inspired cuisine with a strong Mexican flair and some cocktails that can render you “muy feliz?” TIERRA could be the place for you. Deep, down (way down, under SPRUCE on the Post Road) in the heart of Westport is the new TIERRA, love child of married chefs Sue Torres and Darren Carbone. Torres - previously chef in such notable jaunts as La Grenouille, The 21 Club and the former owner of Suenos in lower Manhattan -and hubby Carbone (Rosa Mexicano and Alma De Cuba in PA) have created a cozy and inviting restaurant that has Westport diners in a chili-infused tizzy. Complete with outside seating for 30 (perhaps not the greatest view but who cares, it’s summer!) and indoor seating for at least 45 - including a beautiful private dining room for 16 or so, TIERRA lures you in and treats you right.
Chef Carbone is always on duty and on our first visit, showed us around his well-appointed kitchen and dining room. The cast iron, homemade tortilla press - a rarity - is in plain view and sous chef Mario was busy breaking down lobster and fresh Bronzini for the evening’s freshest picks.
Stylish and inviting, TIERRA has a small bar area with very comfy seating, exposed cement ceiling (except for the private dining room which sports silver acoustic!) and grey wood flooring with a lovely two-sided gas fireplace, which warms and adds to the cozy style of the establishment. Faux pony on the walls and lighting brings added texture to the experience - TIERRA is mighty cozy.
Of course the menu is the thing wherein one can catch the conscience of any enthusiastic eater. Carbone explains, “Sue and I want to cook locally sourced food and combine it with the best Latin inspired recipes” so that the customer can have the finest culinary experience. Freshest of fish, local potatoes and local Farmer’s Market fare go into each dish and thus the menu is always in flux. If lobster is supreme and fresh off the boat, LOBSTER CEVICHE is on the list.
Our ceviche was full of tender lobster, with plenty of citrus and tomato and just enough agave to lend a touch of sweetness to the otherwise tangy dish. Also well executed was the KALE and HEART OF PALM SALAD. Complete with grapefruit wedges, avocado, cucumber and spiced croutons and a light misting of Habanero sherry vinaigrette, this salad was all about the dressing...and it's good.
The WATERMELON SALAD combined pepitas, earthy jicama, queso fresco and a lively, habenero/hibiscus vinaigrette - a superb summer dish guaranteed to stimulate your “juju." The ingredients were well balanced and highly flavorful with lovely mouthfeel.
On another visit, we enjoyed the hot SPRING PEA SOUP -a surprising item on a summer menu. This puree of spring pea with plenty of lively cilantro -and NO added cream what-so-ever - was remarkably refreshing for a warm soup. With a dollop of Crab Salpicon and Marcona Almond as well as nice subtle heat, this was one of the table’s favorites.
We were pleased to see CHICKEN CHILAQUILES on the menu, with salsa verde. Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish that always reminds me of Matzah Brei, the traditional Jewish, Passover dish where matzoh is soaked and cooked with egg. Here, with Chilaquiles, layers of the homemade tortilla sections were lightly fried and then added to simmering salsa verde with just a smidge of cream. The tortillas absorbed the sauce but were removed just in time so as not to render them soggy. Layered, after, with succulent, pulled chicken and crispy onion, and then topped with a sunny-side-up egg, fresh as could be from Sport Hill Farm, this was the quintessential, Mexican comfort food. Or as Chef Torres likes to call it the “Mexican hangover” special.
It should be noted that Tierra's hand-ground corn and guajillo pepper home-made tortillas are simply delicious, and even the flour tortillas are in a league of their own.
Other dishes of note were Abuela's POLLO A LA PLANCHA- tender chicken over braised spinach, served with roasted, sweet plantains- and also the PAN SEARED SCALLOPS -served with a spicy, red chilirelleno and an avocado-tomatillo salsa. Scallops can be difficult, and I thought they could have used another minute in the pan, but the dish, as a whole, was a winner. Don't forget the TACOS AL PASTOR, an elegant take on classic taco truck fare, with shredded pork and pineapple salsa. This writer felt the pineapple was slightly cloying on the palate but try them for yourself.
We also sampled the BRONZINI, which Chef Carbone had just broken down that afternoon. It was grilled and flakey with just enough heat. Served “whole fish” complete with head or filleted, the BRONZINI is a “must order” item. Some at the table thought it a bit on the salty side and the chefs might want to consider a slightly lighter hand while working the salt mill. For me, though, the seasoning was spot on.
And then, the cocktails. Thank goodness, TIERRA has hired expert Aussie Jo Randell to “wo”man the bar and boy, does she does cocktails proud. Previously a bartender at Hop-Sing Laundromat and the Ranstead Room in Philadelphia, Randell promises to make-em and shake-em good. Some stand-outs were the SPICY PALOMA -my personal favorite- with spiced Blanco Tequila and plenty of grapefruit, lime and a salted rim (also available in “not-so-spicy”) and The Lock-Up, made with house infused, strawberry Tequila, lemon juice and sparkling Cava.
With all that is great about TIERRA, there is always room for improvement at a brand new jaunt. There were a few items that might benefit from some tweaking. The LAMB AREPAS were just so-so, I think, due to the slightly uninspired corn patty, and we would have liked a bit more heat in the guacamole. Some thought the food, in general, was a bit salty, but I disagreed. If you are salt-sensitive, you might ask the chefs to go easy.
The staff, for the most part were great (special nods to Julia, Frank and Jaimie) but this may be an area to focus on. Give ‘em a chance, though. TIERRA is a baby, less than a month old, and these tiny issues will be easy to fix.
Indeed, TIERRA is the real deal and the Torres/Carbone partnership, along with co-owners, Laura Luce and Chad Whited, will not disappoint.
The word is out and TIERRA is bustling. The new lunch menu is being solidified and will be out this Monday. Check it out. There is a separate fryer for any of those with gluten issues so be sure to let them know if you are gluten-free.
TIERRA! Delicioso. Ven aca!!!