I don’t want to spark up the whole “free will or destiny” controversy on a food blog, but have you ever been in a situation where you felt you were just meant to be in (cue The Matrix!)? Well this past Monday evening, by the most random of circumstances, I found myself in a quasi familiar restaurant. I say quasi-familiar because I had visited it in another incarnation, when it was known as Chicama, Doug Rodriguez’s old haunt, and I remember enjoying some really fun food there. Today it is known as Lucy of Gramercy (in deference to owner Phil Suarez’s wife). Honey, nothing I have ever experienced as Puerto Rican food (outside Mami and Abuela’s kitchens) has ever rivaled this.
Miguelina quickly looked over the menu and said, ” This is your menu!” True to her word, all of my favorite things were on the menu. With that introduction, I entered into the dining room, where I was introduced to the force of nature that is known as Chef Carmen Gonzalez.
Diminutive, yes, but don’t let her size fool you! Sweet and petite in the dining room, as she greets patrons , Chef Carmen is no wallflower in the kitchen, and she engaged us in stories that had us in stitches even before we had a bite to eat! We were waiting for one of the Sofrito Girls who was flying back home from Miami, so I figured the Picadera, or “nosh” course was a good idea before ordering first and main courses. The rest of the Sofrito Girls (and one boy!) were on hand to lend their voices and opinions to the celebration.
Chef Carmen dazzled us with a myriad of little bites that teased the appetite, and had our group waxing poetic. The Papitas Rellenas with Picadillo and Charred Tomato Sauce were wonderful, while the Almojabanas with Artisan Manchego were melt in your mouth wonders! They were quickly followed by crispy Yucca Fries dressed with a garlicky mayonnaise and Alcapurrias de Guisado de Pollo with Salsita de Pique that were crispy, light and delicious. Do not get me started on the Aranitas and the Pork Bites with Chimichurri Sauce! I could have made an entire meal out of just those two items! The Aranitas (plantain “spiders”) had a miraculous texture, and the Pork Bites were garlicky with a lovely acid note from the lemon juice relish it is served with (*swoon*)!
Right around now, I’m thinking I have died and gone to heaven, when Chef Carmen starts sending out a variety of first courses (she decided our order was superfluous, and she would do us the honor of ordering for us!). All I have to say is, “Be still my beating heart!” Chef Carmen spoiled us with Seared Yellowfin Tuna with Malanga Mash and Coconut Gastrique , Tostonsitos Rellenos with Bacalao Guisado Avocado Salad with Onions, Tomatoes in Passionfruit Vinagrette, Key West Shrimp and Sweet Plantain Pionono with Sofrito Sauce and a Lobster and Avocado Terrine that literally bought tears of happiness to my eyes!
I was pretty convinced by now that Chef Carmen was a culinary phenome that was using the ingredients of all the comfort foods I loved, and transforming them into works of art, when she came out of the kitchen with this little treasure:
a bottle of homemade Vinagre (or pique)…I knew I was home!
I was ready to go home right about now, but Chef Carmen had other plans for my party; she saw a fish course in our immediate future, so out came the Chilean Sea Bass in Corn Broth and Fingerling Potato Croquette (delicate and delicious), Pan Seared Red Snapper with White Water Clams and Leek and Chorizo Stew (the chorizo offers a bold contrast to the delicate snapper), and the Black Grouper Drizzled with Sour Orange Gastrique and Smoked Calabaza Risotto ( beautiful to the eye as well as your taste buds!).
When the waiter stopped by to ask if we needed anything, I quickly answered, “A spare stomache!!”, but was Chef Carmen through with us? Not by a long shot! The meat course came out and what a course it was! Slow Braised Boneless Wagyu Beef Short Ribs with Funche (Puerto Rican polenta) and Island Mojito disappeared almost as soon as it hit the table. I would have thought that my party could scarcely breath by now, but they tucked in like “como pillo de pelicula!” The Pork Tenderloin with Sweet Plantain Fufu and Gandules Guisados was perfectly seasoned (the gandules reminded me of Mami’s!). and the Duck Breast with Tamarind and Vintage Port Sauce with Corn Flan (that corn flan was obscene!!) was cooked to perfection with the tamarind serving as the perfect foil for the unctuousness of the duck breast. Can I get a Thank you Jesus!?
The sides included a serving of Arroz con Gandules, Garlic Scented wilted Baby Spinach and Tostones (paper thin!) with Mojo Dipping sauce.
Well, you guys know me by now…I’m savory, not sweet, and I had had my fill of savory for the night! Chef Carmen was not to be denied, however, and our table was presented with a Warm Mango Bread Pudding with Passionfruit and Mint Sorbet that was so good that I was punching myself and leaving bruises on my legs! The ultra creamy Flan was not to be outdone, and elicited ooohs and aahhhs from everyone present, while Chef Carmen stood by watching, with arms crossed and a content look on her face that reminded me of Abuela. The Coconut Tembleque was Esmeralda’s weakness, ad the Arroz con Dulce (PR Rice pudding) was whimsically presented in a corn husk like a tamale.
Of course, Chef Carmen would not believe that another bite of anything would probably send me to the ER, so she sent out her interpretation of a Cheese and Guava Paste Plate that contained a Monte Negro Cheese with an ash rind that was nothing short of a miracle.
Here is my advice to you: run, don’t walk to Lucy of Gramercy. The room is delicately appointed, the service is impeccable, and the chef is a whirling dervish of energy and creativity. Short of coming to my own house to eat, it is as close as I’ve ever come to eating comfort food that mirrors food prepared by my own hand. Three cheers for Chef Carmen, a sister at heart!
Lucy of Gramercy
35 East 18th Street
New York, NY
1 212 475 5829