Chef Townsend "Tod" Wentz is in a dark and daring mood as he and his kitchen crew take their wood-fired Spanish journey at Oloroso.
Calasparra rice is turned jet black with squid ink, then bumped with the unlikely touch of aged Manchego. The sheep's milk cheese has a nutty richness that somehow magnifies the light sea funk of the silky rice enriched with shrimp stock, topped off with the squid-on-squid crunch of fried calamares that sparkle with espelette pepper.
A stunning Iberian riff on shrimp toast brought a crisped rectangle of black brioche (inked again!) with dual toppings of crustacean — one hot, one cold — and a translucent sheet of Mangalica lardo that melted over each warm bite like delicious pig-flavored shrink wrap.
And then there is the darkly roasted eggplant "tagine," a nod to the Moorish influence on Spain whose North African spices of cumin, ginger, and coriander get singed to peak aromatics over cast iron inside the restaurant's giant wood hearth. Drizzled with gingered honey and topped with a crunchy nest of shaved raw scallions, it's a fabulous take on the nightshade, whose inner flesh is lusciously moist and smoky.
It was a perfect suite of exotic flavors and eye-catching compositions — served on locally crafted ceramics and washed down with an impressive array of sherries and tastefully obscure Spanish vinos — while we waited for the main event: a crispy pig's head.
But we needed to pace ourselves at Oloroso, where an adventurous parade of big flavors is so magnetic it made me wonder why our Spanish scene — red-hot a decade ago, thanks to Jose Garces — has since been in a long and quiet lull.
That world got a welcome jolt last fall from lively Barcelona Wine Bar on East Passyunk, which reflects a more classic tapas-style destination. There's a bit more finesse to the cooking at Oloroso, though the dishes evoke more impressionistic flavors of Spain than strict homages to traditional templates. That might seem off character for Wentz, whom I consider a modern French traditionalist at Townsend, his destination on East Passyunk, and perhaps only slightly less so at the Italian-themed A Mano in Fairmount, where the pastas are among the city's best.
Spanish food has been more of a long infatuation than a prime career focus for Wentz, who dabbled in peppers Basquaise and sherry-splashed shrimp back in his early days at the Four Seasons, but who has always harbored an unexplored love of the rustic flavors of Spain. Life has been busy for the Lacroix alum, now on his third restaurant opening in four years. But he has a pilgrimage to the peninsula scheduled this spring that I'm sure will continue to inform and shape his vision in exciting ways.
In the meantime, the culinary instincts of one of the city's best cooks has already served his menu at Oloroso well. That's clear you when taste a stunner like the escabeche of big U-10 scallops, whose sweet ivory flesh is lightly pickled in citrus and garlic oil, set over a refreshing honeydew-cucumber gazpacho, and then draped with sheer ribbons of hand-sliced jamón. The ham adds a welcome salty note, but also a surprisingly silky textural contrast and a lingering savory resonance.
Wentz and his wife, sommelier and general manager Gordana Kostovski, have found a promising location to launch the latest stop on their Euro tour, tapping a rising sense of revival around Market East and Washington Square West. The wood hearth left by the former Petruce et al. lends the food an earthy, smoky edge, including the crusty boules of fresh sourdough drizzled with olive oil to start the meal. The space's long chain of rooms has smartly been opened up for better flow and warmed by a new mahogany bar and Persian rugs that cover the floor and banquettes. There's also a glass-enclosed room for Kostovski's cellar to grow in new directions.
This is the first time since Twenty21 that the pair have been able to work together. And it's hard to understate what a talented sommelier like Kostovski, who previously ran the beverage program at Volvér, can bring to the overall experience. There are some fun cocktails with savory flourishes and Spanish twists to start the meal (try the salt-and-peppered In Effect). The bar also has 25 sherries in every shade (I loved the electric crispness of a cask-style "en rama" Manzanilla). Kostovski also assembled 100 quality wines, including 22 by the glass, with some rare indie surprises, like the dry white Pedro Ximénez blend from Málaga (La Ola del Milellero), and the pleasantly funky natural rosado from Finca Parera (we ended up drinking the last bottle in Pennsylvania).
More important, Oloroso's staff is so well trained that our server effortlessly talked a guest through three tempranillo options by homing in on specific ingredients in each of his various dishes. We settled on the tobacco-y berry notes of La Hazaña, which hit both the richness of the smoked short rib croquettes, and the gaminess of a pheasant special wrapped in the salty crisp of Serrano.
There can be so many flavors on the table at any given time, the flexibility of beverages — and a sense of adventure in diners' appetites — is key. To be sure, there are plenty of dishes that should appeal to conservative eaters, from the crunchy-fluff of patatas bravas with saffron aioli to one of the best chickens I've had in recent memory, a juicy breast scented with the wood oven over root vegetables. Everyone would have loved the braised lamb shank in Rioja sauce had it not been a little bland, one of Oloroso's very few disappointments. (Another small letdown: The smoked lamb shoulder over farro had plenty of flavor but was dry.)
The seafood paella, though not bad by any measure, was not my favorite dish, either. The rice was too tomatoey and wet, and because it was oven-roasted instead of grilled, it lacked the crusty socarrat bottom I covet. If Wentz learns anything on his coming trip to Spain, a paella lesson would be nice.
But there were many other things to love, especially with seafood. A silvery fillet of mild branzino hid the intrigue of pickled mussels escabeche mingling with sweet oranges. A thick hunk of cod wrapped in a band of crisped ham was all delicacy as it flaked into roasted red Basquaise peppers. The salt-cod fritters are so good because Wentz cures his own fish for more suppleness than you can get from rehydrating the usual bacalao planks.
His steamed littlenecks may be my favorite new clam dish, because their mop of sherry-soaked onions and the crunchy bits of ripped bread croutons evoked a wonderful seafood riff on French onion soup. Is grilled octopus even considered edgy anymore? I doubt it. But Oloroso's rendition is on point, the tender morsels tossed with chickpeas and chorizo in a spicy Middle Eastern muhammara of peppers, nuts, and pomegranate molasses that glowed with sweet, tart heat.
Oloroso is truly at its best, however, for those willing to indulge the chef's passion for nose-to-tail cooking. The ribbons of tripe braised deep in a bed of vinegar-tanged spicy peppers is destination offal. Chocolaty nuggets of blood sausage, along with lardons and chorizo, add charcuterie oomph to the gigante beans. The roasted bone marrow, which rises dramatically above its pan like a gruesome chimney, adds an emulsifying richness to Madeira-braised mushrooms destined for sourdough toast.
But nothing drew this noisy dining room to a momentary hush quite like one of those split hog's heads, which finally arrived on a big wooden platter at our table like a medieval feast in primal glory, its floppy ear and noble snout slow-cooked half a day, then roasted to a cracker crisp beneath a mahogany shine of Pedro Ximénez sherry caramel. This sharing endeavor, at $38 a person, is not for the squeamish. But our server expertly removed all the meat, crispy skin, and other bits from the skull and tidily portioned them into glossy piles alongside green olive tapenade, potatoes, and blistered shishito peppers.
I forked through them slowly, closed my eyes, and simply let the incredibly unctuous flavor morsels melt away on my tongue, knowing opportunities to appreciate a pig are rarely this complete, or intense, or as expertly rendered.
Dessert, anyone? That was my first thought when I opened my eyes from that porcine reverie. And this restaurant delivered, from deeply grooved churros fritters with smoked cinnamon chocolate for dipping to orange-scented crème Catalan and an admirable lineup of sweet sherries for full effect.
Oloroso's Spanish journey clearly is just beginning. But it's already off to a very sweet start.