A charismatic chef can charm you into loving his food. Say he has a lilting accent and sparkly eyes and personally delivers every course. Say he lets you in on his secret spice blend, pulls up a chair and speaks poetry about his favorite dishes. You might become so absorbed in his stories that they transform what you're eating. This can happen at Laurentino's when Xavier "Laurentino" Sales steps out of the kitchen. He carouses in Spanish with tables of his countrymen, discusses the surreal genius of Antonio Gaudi's architecture with a couple just back from Barcelona and distributes samples of imported almond nougat to customers who ask what flavors his unusual, nut-buttery ice cream.
I'm wary of his sort, just as I'm wary of desserts with pretty garnishes and ravioli specials. What are they trying to hide? One lush bowl of beans I ate when Sales was out running errands convinced me his cooking tastes sincere even when he's not around. In the classic dish fabada Asturiana, creamy white beans and saffron rice form a soft backdrop for high-pitched mustard greens, the smoke of sausage and bacon and the salty funk of shredded Serrano ham. And there's a rich undercurrent I couldn't wrap my tongue around, something like the pure goodness of pork fat, but no cloying or gristle. Finely chopped blood sausage, divulged the only waitress, is the elusive ingredient.
Like this Monday special, most of Sales' food rides on its own charisma, compensating for a setting that's not un-cheerful but lacks the romance of a dizzyingly busy tapas bar or a seaside paella restaurant. When you call for directions the waitress will tell you that Laurentino's is between Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Al Copeland's house. You'll sail past it once, so turn around before you hit the lake, look for a glow in the corner of a very dark shopping nook and channel your nose towards garlic. The interior is almost glaring at first, a handful of shiny-topped tables and generic chairs flanked by silver paella pans hanging as art and two wall murals of coastal Spain. Remember that high luxury rarely accompanies the most thrilling underground food finds.
New Orleans, like most of America, has yet to fully embrace Spain's culinary gifts, barring the far-removed Spanish influence upon Creole cooking. Tapas, small portions of cocktail-friendly foods, make a proper introduction. Every tapas bar in Spain has a specialty, which you put away in two bites with a spot of wine before moving on. Since Laurentino's is the neighborhood's only tapas restaurant, it's fortunate that you'll want to stick around for several, like cured black olives and salty Manchego cheese speared to garlic toasts with toothpicks. Similar cracker-size toasts also hold wisps of psychedelically seasoned pork tenderloin, or roasted red bell peppers coated with syrupy, aged balsamic vinegar. Patatas bravas inspires complete surrender to the potato: diced potatoes are boiled to inner fluff, fried to a crisp outer film and smothered with chile-red garlic mayonnaise.
You may supplement an entire meal of tapas with inexpensive bottles of Albarino or Rioja wine, bittersweet Estrella Galicia beer or spritzy housemade sangria.
The remainder of the menu, a jumble of the chef's parents' recipes, is equally worth plumbing. Brothy garlic soup, for example, is a balancing act of robust chicken stock, filaments of egg and garlic shards that somehow manage not to bully. Castilian cordero chilandron is a rich lamb stew made with red wine and bell peppers; it tastes nation-less, kin to warming meat stews served around the globe.
Most tables order at least one enormous portion of paella, the yield-yellow rice dish from Valencia that's not unlike jambalaya when you think about it. Order it with mussels, shrimp and calamari; with sausage, chicken and pork; or with a combination. Paellas are cooked to order with a few vegetables and served in searing flat-bottomed pans; the grains of rice are distinct, properly tense and perfectly oiled. Sales slips in the familiar twang of Creole spices, while saffron contributes the manic color. Fideuas are like paellas, only made with broken angel hair pasta instead of rice. Both of these traditional dishes are a bit lumbering following a round of tapas and probably best preceded by a salad. I wouldn't know from experience, thanks to the patatas bravas.
In the fateful circumstance that almond nougat ice cream isn't available, order crema de leche flan, which is like solid caramel spun into custard. And by all means let the waitress talk you into carajillo: a demitasse of espresso, spicy Spanish brandy and steamed milk. Spaniards throw these back in neighborhood cafes to begin the day, according to Sales; one is an effective nightcap.
Before you leave you'll be given a stack of menus and cards for all your friends. "It was nice to have you over," the chef will call from the kitchen. It's no surprise to learn that Sales trained in theater before teaching himself to cook -- not because his warmth is an act but because he's so skilled at distributing that warmth. Thank goodness he's choosing the latter profession for now.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Xavier "Laurentino" Sales' warm demeanor is not act; he's just passionate about the Spanish food he serves at his nickname-sake restaurant, LAURENTINO'S.