My father loved opera and our home in Sri Lanka was filled with music. Gigli, Callas, Caruso and Pavorotti would boom out of the stereo, its ancient valves gently glowing as the turntable or the open reel tape deck would spin out well loved arias. At family events my father would be pressed to exercise his soaring tenor, by then usually mellowed by a wee dram of Scotland’s finest. There is a much retold family legend of my father being stopped in post war Italy without the right papers and charming his way out of the situation by singing to the police in Italian!
Like my father, opera singers tend to be larger than life characters. They also tend to be rather large, enjoying to the fullest their appetite for life’s finest. Many are gourmands. Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo celebrated his love of Mexican food and his friendship with Mexican born chef Richard Sandoval by opening Pampano, a Mexican restaurant in New York City. Sandoval’s restaurant career started 15 years ago with Maya, the elaborate Mexican restaurant and tequila bar on First Avenue and has now expanded to 30 restaurants around the world. Maya even has a branch in Dubai. Very dish dashing. Sandoval is frequently cited amongst the top Mexican chefs in the US and Pampano as one of the best Mexican restaurants in New York City.
I was recently at Pampano, in the Amster Yard neighbourhood of Manhattan. This mid town area on the east side of the island housed stables in the 19th century. After World War 2, designer James Amster created a compound as a haven for creative types, attracting amongst others the interior decorator Billy Baldwin, fashion designer Norman Norell and sculptor Isamu Noguchi as residents. Today the yard is being sensitively redeveloped by the Instituto Cervantes, a not for profit cultural foundation backed by the Spanish government. These days that usually means German taxpayers are footing the bill.
I was with the Swattie and the Hybrid Banker. The Swattie is a recovering communist trained at a secret branch of the Kremlin, on the Crum river in Pennsylvania. The Hybrid Banker is a gentle giant who drives only hybrid cars and might hug a tree if he thought no one was watching. His bank famously provided free banking services to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Sadly, since the Occupiers thought that work was a four letter word, they had no money and the bank wouldn’t accept Starbucks coupons.
Pampano occupies a two storey building with a bar and taqueria on the ground floor and the restaurant upstairs. The upstairs space is light and airy, with a dramatic white on white beach theme. The glass roof has white canvas blinds through which diffused sunlight spills into the room. There are old fashioned paddle fans and white plaster reliefs of palm trees. An outdoor dining area is decorated with metal fish in bright Miro colours .The decor transports you from 49th street to a beach front, the soft guitar music adding a definitive Latin lilt.
The drinks list naturally focuses on tequila. The Agave Oro Margarita uses ultra premium Gran Centenario Silver tequila, agavero and agave nectar. They don’t make margaritas quite like this on the other side of the pond. The flavour was nicely rounded with a depth and a complexity rarely found in this cocktail. The lime was present in the mouth, but so was a delicate sweetness. I had two drinks, just to make sure I liked it.
This is a creative drinks list and the Mojito Martini was another hit. Made with white rum, mint and lime, it is topped with cava and garnished with a red grape. The initial sip is full of cava, but the bite of rum and lime is present as the sparkle hits the back of the throat. The shredded mint floating on the surface of the drink generates a lovely fragrance.
I could have stayed all afternoon drinking, but lunch was on the agenda. It is hard to find good Mexican food in Europe. Chef Sandoval does his birth nation proud with creative combinations that retain cultural authenticity.
This is a coastal Mexican seafood menu, punctuated with chillies. They are all present on the menu; from the flavourful anchos, anaheims, guajillos and chipotles to the fiery habaneros and jalapenos. Sandoval uses chillies with a deft touch, enhancing flavours without overwhelming them. Crispy jalapenos bring a piquancy to fluke (aka summer flounder), with a boniata puree nicely offsetting the chilli in this flaky white fish dish. Guajillo peppers add complex green tea and berry overtones to mixed seafood stuffed into a poblano chilli in the Chile Relleno.
It’s been a while since I saw Placido Domingo perform. He is past his prime now but his friend Sandoval is keeping his restaurant investment safe. Eat, drink and be merry! My father’s musical genes have been passed and enhanced in my daughter whose work appears here. Enjoy!