The Spanish Civil War was more than just a disillusioning conflict in which the assholes won; it’s a strange allegory for modern Spanish cuisine. On the right is tapas, the traditional Spanish bar food which, for better or worse, inspired the tragicomic “small plates” phenomenon. On the left, of course, is molecular gastronomy: based in Bilbao, everybody knows that legendary recipe elf Ferran Adria brought the world mind-bending dishes composed mostly of air and slimy bubbles filled with flavored jelly.
Which side do you choose? the solid, but old-fashioned and unoriginal fascists? or the avant-garde but dickheaded commies? The only winning move, some would argue, is not to play. Which is actually what Aragona does. With the careful modifier “Spanish inspired cuisine” bukkaked all over its website, Aragona delicately threads the ideological needle.
Before you even get food, the wine service will unobtrusively introduce itself to you. A wine steward listened to what we ordered then recommended sherries and wines to complement the meal. This is fucking pimp. The best butler, it’s said, is one you don’t even realize is working for you, and the wine program at Aragona fits the bill. I was nudged toward a 375 mL bottle of sherry with the assurance that it was drier than most of the reds on the menu.
True enough, it’s not the kind of sherries hobos drink: this sherry was indeed arid, like a soda cracker topped with a crumbling fossilized baby doll’s femur. There were notes of copper and apricot, and in the finish was the unmistakably mossy and mineral aroma of one and only one thing: freshly ejaculated semen. Why “baby batter” isn’t on the wine flavor wheel is beyond me. Actually I know why: who wants to say “this sherry taste like jizz?” Luckily for all you readers, I’m cocksure enough (get it?) to admit that this sherry snowball was a perfect match to the dishes we ordered.
Anyway. We started with the gambas al pil-pil ($20). This traditional tapas dish was executed so precisely, it’s like they cooked the shrimp with a satellite-mounted laser. The prawns were cooked delicately, bathed in the famous basque sauce of olive oil, garlic, and peppers. It wasn’t too spicy, of course; the Iberian peninsula’s false reputation for “spicy” food comes from generations of liver-spotted English schoolmarms for whom a single peppercorn causes uncomfortable feelings in their collective clitorides.
It WAS, however, unapologetically garlicky, although it wasn’t over the top. In fact, the shrimp in some ways isn’t even the focus of this dish; the leftover oil is fucking KILLER. Here’s a list of the things off of which I’d lick the pil pil sauce:
1. An electric fence
2. Mike Tyson’s scrotum
3. Your mom
and finally (and most likely) 4. Bread, which luckily is not only abundant at Aragona,, but in the true commie Spanish Republican tradition is also FREE, bucking the trend of fancy restaurants who want you to pay three or four bucks for their special artisan lesbian bread with unicorn butter.
Next up was Ensalada de achicorias y pipas ($12), fancy Spanish words for chicory salad. The menu promises an anchovy vinaigrette and sunflower seeds, but the sunflower seeds were practically endangered, and the vinaigrette wasn’t especially anchovied. Anchovy flavor tends to walk a fine line: too heavy-handed and it tastes like your mom; not enough and you feel cheated. But if you use just enough, anchovies offer an almost mystical savory flavor without yelling I’M A FISH MOTHERFUCKER into your face. Aragona’s anchovy vinaigrette beautifully toed the line, offering a vague offshore saltiness to the proceeding which paid fawning compliments to the bitter greens, like a glossy and careful lothario’s advances toward a wealthy octogenarian.
Arroz meloso de costillitas de cerdo y garbanzos ($24) was a very basic dish of braised pork shoulder with rice and beans. This was fine, though I would have vastly preferred actual paella, with the seafood and the caramelized crusty rice on the bottom, and sausage and saffron and wood smoke and all the other stuff, but this was, as previously stated, fine. The rice was perfectly cooked, with firm and distinct but creamy grains. The shreds of braised pork were luscious and tender, and the beans were also competently executed, but my overall impression was that this dish was boring as fuck.
Trucha a la Navarra ($25) was a beheaded and deboned trout, topped with caramelized onions and stuffed with jamon Serrano. This was very good; the trout was flaky and well-seasoned, with a crisp skin. The advertised smear of caramelized onions on top was sweet and reduced down to an almost nihilistic nothingness; meanwhile, julienned threads of Serrano ham inside the fish’s cavity provided a covert saltiness.
The Zanahorias con ajo tostado y vinagre de muscatel we ordered with the trout was less successful. For $12 we got a big plate of carrots, roasted on the plancha, with garlic and muscatel vinegar. The garlic chips were toasty and sweet, and the vinegar brought a much-needed counterpoint to the sugariness, but the carrots were sadly undercooked: charred and blistered on the outside by the plancha’s inferno, they were still too stiff inside. Just like your mom!
Finally dessert. Faithful readers of this blog may know by now that I don’t usually give a shit about dessert, but the Xuxos caseros ($12) was fucking magnificent. I’m guessing, based purely on the number of x’s in the name, that “xuxos” is a Basque variant of “churros.” These were cute little cigars of puff pastry, tightly wrapped around a crème anglaise filling and dusted on top with granular nuggets of truffle salt. Normally I would laugh at a nouveau riche ingredient like truffle salt, which is the gastronomic equivalent of a hot tub with colored LED’s in the bottom of it, but Aragona makes it work, since just a little salt, and the earthy petroleum of (probably fake) truffle flavor neatly offset the sweet cream filling, We paired this with a scoop of a smooth and fucking chocolatey as hell cocoa sorbet ($7), thus manufacturing our own postmodern iteration of churros y chocolate.
I generally like Aragona. The décor is breathtakingly mod, with carefully curated modern artwork all over the place, and clean lines in an airy and uncluttered dining room. I rarely comment on ambiance, but they nailed it. The cuisine, with only a few missteps, is technically perfect. Plus, your dish may very well be brought to your table by certified famous person Carrie Mashaney (as with almost everyone, Mrs. Mashaney, I have you at a disadvantage, but thank you for bringing us our trout). If I have any real complaints, and I never thought I’d be saying this, it’s that Aragona doesn’t acknowledge molecular gastronomy enough. I don’t mean that they should blanket the dish in foam and smoke and jelly bubbles and “caviar” made out of ingredients which clearly were not extruded from a fish’s vulva, but an El Bullian nip slip here and there would have paid homage to what is, whether you like it or not, part of Spanish cuisine for the rest of human history.
Rating: 8.5 nip slips out of 10
Aragona is located at 96 Union Street
For reservations call 206-682-3590