When I open the menu of Samar to the “Inspirations From Spain” page, I feel that it could stand alone as the menu of a restaurant dedicated to New Spanish Cuisine. In other words, we have a new culinary category in Dallas. It is hidden in plain sight in the more diffuse concept behind Samar. Samar co-owner and creator Stephan Pyles graciously agreed to an e-mail interview about the Spanish influences at Samar. His replies are illuminating.
SideDish: I heard that you traveled in Spain, dining at every single 3-star Michelin restaurant. Is that true? Did you really get into El Bulli (a restaurant open for only six months of the year where 500,000 requests for reservations are supplied by about 10,000 seats each year)?
Jump for the joy of Spain.
Stephan Pyles: Actually, I HAD dined at every 2 and 3-star restaurant but the new Michelin guide just came out and there are 4 new 2-stars (drat!). The one new 3-star is El Celler de can Roca in Girona which was a 2-star when I was there this summer and it definitely deserves a third star.
SD: Which three chefs or restaurants in Spain (regardless of star rating) contributed most to the things we find at Samar?
SP: Certainly El Bulli has changed my perception and philosophy of cooking in general but there are only a couple of dishes on the Samar menu that are reflective of Ferran Adria’s style – the almond gazpacho with liquid grapes and the Asturian beans and clam stew with chorizo foam. Actually, the pork is cooked in sous vide but that’s almost become commonplace today. The favorite restaurant in Spain of many American chefs is Mugaritz. It was not one of my favorites but I must applaud the chef for the departure he has taken. The greatest influence on the Samar menu has probably simply been the myriad tapas bars that I have eaten in over the past 10 years. But there is a specific tapas restaurant in San Sebastian called A Fuego Negro that really got me to thinking about new ways to prepare tapas.
SD: Let’s talk about some specific menu items. My favorite item on the Spanish section of your menu is Tres Vasos, literally ‘Three Glasses’, described on the menu as containing Foie Gras Brûlée with Ximénez Figs and Crispy Jamon Serrano, Ruby Red Grapefruit with Feta Foam and Lemongrass-Ginger Gelée and Spiced Shrimp with Pumpkin Flan and Orange. Where did the inspiration to serve this in tumblers come from (I know that you have used this technique at Stephan Pyles for some time)?
SP: This was a specific inspiration from A Fuego Negro where a portion of the menu was labeled “vasos”.
SD: In each case the ingredients are layered in the glass. You insert your fork all the way to the bottom and pull up a helping containing some of each layer, a bit like taking a soil sample. In the case of the first glass, for example (the Foie Gras Brûlée with Ximenez Figs and Crispy Jamon Serrano), how did you arrive at the ethereal combination of foie gras, apparently lightened with air, figs marinated in Pedro Ximénez (the Rodney Dangerfield of dessert wines) and wafers of Jamon sprinkled on top.
SP: I have long loved the combination of figs and jamon serrano (nothing new there), figs and Pedro Ximénez (nothing terribly new there), figs and foie gras (nothing new there). The freshness is in combining ALL those ingredients and layering them in separate preparations and components.
SD: Where in Spain did Croquetas del Cangrejo (Peekytoe Crab Fritters with Celery-Citrus Salpicón) come from? Any Yucatan influences?
SP: Crab croquetas are not nearly as common as many other kinds of croquetas in Spain but they are usually eaten alone or with a flavored mayonnaise. I was looking for something refreshing and tart (acidic) to balance the dish. The celery, arugula, lemon, and Parmesan combination is a beautiful accompaniment to many dishes and I’m not really sure where the influence came from but it was probably somewhere in the Mediterranean rather than the Yucatan.
SD: What was the inspiration for the Arroz Negro Con Calamares Fritos (Black Rice with Fried Squid and Preserved Lemon Aioli)?
SP: You can’t do a representation of Spanish cooking without including rice. I am fortunate to have a dear friend in Valencia (the birthplace of paella) that I visit often. I have spent days eating nothing but variations of paella and other rice dishes.
SD: And some questions about regional influences. The Basque Country is widely considered the most gastronomically fanatical region of Spain. What Basque influences (food or techniques) found their way onto the menu at Samar?
SP: I have always been most inspired and challenged while eating in the Basque country. Except for El Bulli, it offers the most provocative cooking of all the regions. Again, the tapas restaurant in San Sebastian called A Fuego Negro was this summer’s surprise find. It continues to influence my tapas. The cuisine of Arzak was startling when I first ate there 10 years ago. Martin Berasutegi this summer was (so far) my best meal of the year.
SD: And Andalucía, where European and African influences collide. What found itself on to the menu?
SP: We have ajo blanco on the menu. White gazpacho is typical of the south and east of Andalusia. This is Malaga’s famous ajo blanco (white garlic) which dates back to Moorish times and is a peasant dish adapted for city tastes in the nineteenth century. It consists of pounding peeled almonds with cooking salt before crushing the basic elements into the mixture and then adding water to get the smoothness of a soup. The strong flavor of garlic is often toned down by adding melons or grapes. At Samar, we make the “liquid grapes” of the molecular kitchens of El Bulli.
SD: A general assessment of Spain: Anthony Bourdain claimed in an August 2008 episode of his television show No Reservations that Spain is now the culinary talisman of western cuisine, supplanting France. Do you have any opinions on that issue?
SP: Yes, I believe this to be true. I enjoyed the article in the New York Times a few years back in the Sunday magazine where the title said it all: Spain – the new France! Far more daring and trend-setting cooking is coming from the kitchens in Spain than France.
SD: And a miscellany: You spent several months on menu development prior to opening. Inevitably many ideas, although initially promising, eventually get rejected for one reason or another. Can you describe the “most fabulous failure” in the case of Samar?
SP: I wanted to do a sous vide octopus salad that just never quite lived up to my expectations. I relented and the arroz negro with calamari advanced forward to the menu. We experimented with dozens of dishes that didn’t make the menu. Although there are 40 items on the menu, each country is only represented by 10 dishes (3 cultures and 10 desserts). It’s hard to even get a full view of a cuisine and culture in so few dishes, so we will be changing the menu frequently.
SD: Menus change. What might we see on the next iteration of the Spanish section at Samar?
SP: For sure, the sous vide octopus salad. Also I would like to venture a little further into the realm of the molecular – more reverse spherifications, add some fluid gels as accents to otherwise classic Spanish dishes.
SD: Stephan Pyles, thank you for your time.