Cucharamama is not a large restaurant. Neither is Zafra, 2012 JBF Best Chef Atlantic winner Maricel Presilla‘s other restaurant located a block away in Hoboken, NJ, but her cooking packs a large punch of flavor – flavor that is well balanced and well off the beaten path of all but a few mainstream restaurants in the United States. Presilla is an academic with degrees in Medieval History and Anthropology and wields an academic’s zeal for precision, accuracy and thoroughness in her restaurants. She is also a writer, with frequent contributions to magazines like Saveur, American Express Departures and others. With one book on chocolate already to her credit, she is set to publish a tome on Latin American cooking, Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America.
Of Cuban heritage with lineage to the first President of Cuba, she came to cooking in a roundabout way, starting with the Cuban dishes that she grew up with and expanding throughout Latin America. Cucharamama, which means “Mother Spoon” – an Andean expression, focuses on cooking and ingredients from South America, while Zafra focuses on the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico. As if those two restaurants weren’t enough, she also has a retail store next to Zafra, where, of course, one can get a meal or bread or many other things, including chocolate, a particular passion of hers – her family once owned a cacao plantation on Cuba.
I had only previously had brunch at Cucharamama, but recently, my wife, my son and I had the opportunity to return to Cucharamama for dinner. We were joined at the table by Mariel herself. Our meal turned into one flavor treat after another.
Opening bites often set a tone for a how a meal will go. Bread and butter were quickly put on our table, but these had a unique charm. Tortilla like flatbread was coated with Peruvian chili and Parmesan cheese and the butter was lightly honeyed. The combined effect was magic for our hungry stomachs.
The same applies to opening drinks. My wife and I each ordered a cocktail, while our son had an alcohol-free horchata. My wife’s Mojito was minty and beautifully balanced and our son’s horchata offered an exotic flavor without being too sweet. An iced limonada that he ordered later, while less exotic, contained a perfect balance of sweet and sour.
My cocktail, the Cucharamama Choco-Rum was simply delicious. Slightly sweet and slightly bitter, aged Venezuelan rum had been infused with Ecuadorian Pacari raw chocolate and served with a twist of fresh orange and cacao nibs. It was refreshing and very, very easy to drink. It could have been very, very dangerous.
I don’t often order vodka based drinks, but I wanted to try her flor de jamaica and her cocktail list had a vodka based drink that featured the hibiscus tea, which she calls a “Mamapolitan”. It was once again, very, very easy to drink as Presilla’s jamaica showed why this is such a popular tea in Latin America.
I had one last cocktail before the end of the meal, just because it sounded so interesting on the menu. This one, called “Naranjillazo,” contained a juice that I had never previously tasted – naranjilla. A fruit from the Ecuadorian Amazon, it was unique and delicious. The naranjilla juice had been scented with cinnamon and paired with Zhumir, a smooth Ecuadorian aguadiente. Thankfully, we had a lot of food to soak up the alcohol, or else I might have really felt the effects of all that danger!
Like all good cooking, Cucharamama’s food is all about balance. Presilla and her kitchen staff do a great job of making flavors support each other rather than compete. Sweet is never too sweet. Salty is never too salty and spicy, well, I found the level of spice to be just right – it was definitely there, but I could still taste all of the other flavor components. One dish whose sweetness was expertly balanced to highlight its savory elements was a ripe plantain that had been roasted in the wood oven, then served whole with sides of fresh cheese, curd and a peanut seasoning mix from Bahia de Caráquez. This was an Ecuadorian dish. We cut the plantain and spooned the other elements on the cut pieces and ate them. The plantain by itself was sweet and delicious. It could have been a dessert course just as it was, but when the other elements were added, it was transformed into a mouth-watering savory dish.
Presilla tries hard for authenticity, but not too hard. She imports spices and ingredients when they work and make sense, but not when the quality available wouldn’t add to a dish. Her meat and seafood are all items that are accessible or transport well. They are neither super expensive cuts nor of poor quality. She uses plenty of top notch Andean spices and peppers such as aji panca, rocoto and others. Fried calamari, a tasty, but common dish that is difficult to make stand out, reaches another level at Cucharamama with Peruvian spicing and saucing. The calamari themselves, supremely tender and expertly fried in a batter spiced with aji panca, is marvelous with its accompanying dipping salsa of Peruvian rocoto peppers and tamarillo and an accompaniment of pickled vegetables.
South American cuisine has many influences. Spain is certainly one of the principle ones. While much South American food is spicy, that with direct Spanish influence tends to be much less so. An example of that at Cucharamama is the Pimientos de Piquillo Rellenos de Calabaza y Queso Manchego. Stuffed piquillos are a personal favorite and these served hot, stuffed with a puree of Caribbean pumpkin and Manchego cheese and blanketed with a creamy Bechamel were pure Spanish influenced luxury.
Empanadas are a South American staple. Those at Cucharamama were amongst the best and most beautifully made I’ve ever had. We had two kinds. Both kinds, one filled with spinach with a bacon-onion sofrito, Manchego and Parmigiano cheeses and the other with spiced ground beef were packed with wallops of flavor, especially when dipped into the Chimichurri sauce that accompanied them.
Shrimp today are often flavorless, with much of it coming from poorly maintained farms in southeas Asia and elsewhere. Presilla’s shrimp are wild caught and thankfully, still have loads of real shrimp flavor. The shrimp were marinated and cooked in the wood-burning oven with a panca pepper sauce and served over a Boronia, an eggplant and ripe plantain puree from Barranquilla, Colombia that highlighted the shrimp’s natural sweetness.
The most hauntingly delicious dish of the evening was the Encebollado de Cerdo con Yuca. Pieces of roasted pork and yuca were marinated in a ceviche dressing. The savoriness of the pork combined with the sunny citrus of the dressing was magic. Pieces of crisp skin were icing on the cake.
Pork shined in another dish, this one even more surprising. Meltingly tender pork belly and mussels were combined in a Barrigada style stew with potatoes, black olives, aji panca and dark beer.
Plantains are a Latin American staple, especially in those countries bordering the Caribbean Sea. We had them a few different ways at Cucharamama. In the last one, called Chispas de Platano, green plantains had been julienned into little “sparks” and fried in clusters. This was served with a cilantro sauce.
Beans are another Latin American staple and something I enjoy very much, especially when they are prepared as well as these Peruvian beans were. This was a soupy preparation that was perfect served over white rice.
Dessert too, was tour de force. We shared a piece of cake, but it was a cake unlike any that I had ever had before. With a Napoleon like center of crisp layers, it was called Milhojas. It had a light Malbec wine meringue and thin layers of flaky dough that had been baked in the wood-burning oven and was finished with a smear of dulce de leche and walnuts.
Authenticity in ethnic cooking is an issue that has seen a resurgence of discussion recently, especially when food is cooked by people who are not of a particular culture or the food is not cooked in the land where the cuisine was born. Rick Bayless, who cooks as authentic a Mexican cuisine outside of Mexico as possible, had a few words on the subject at the recently completed Mesamerica Conference in Mexico City. He recounted some of the obstacles in sourcing appropriate ingredients and concluded, that in describing his version of a Oaxacan tlayuda, that though it it tastes of Chicago and not Oaxaca, it is still authentic, so long as the “Authentic cuisine expresses a deep understanding of (the original) culture or environment or craft.” He added, “The best authentic cuisine always seduces with its flavors.” This definition clearly applies to Bayless’s restaurants in Chicago and it certainly applies to Maricel Presilla’s restaurants in Hoboken, which in addition to her soulful cooking, have decors featuring outstanding artwork, painted by her father, that transport the diner to another place. The question of authenticity is an interesting one, but ultimately, to me is unimportant compared to whether the food of a restaurant is delicious or not. At Cucharamama, the food is both authentic and delicious.