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An Exploration of Venezuelan Inspired Cuisine at Alma Cocina Latina

September 24, 2017

By Bill Babash, Chevalier, Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C.

The Baltimore and Greater Washington Bailliages joined for a spectacular exploration of refined Venezuelan cuisine at Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore's exciting South Canton neighborhood on September 17, 2017.

Alma - "Soul" in Spanish - reflects proprietor Irena Stein's passion not only for food but also for culture and hospitality. Born in Caracas to a Venezuelan mother and Polish father, Irena grew up in Caracas, Paris, and Brussels. She came to the United States in 1980, where her career evolved to let her pursue her love of the arts. In 2002, she made her first foray into the culinary world, opening two cafés at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that brought exciting, healthy, and delicious food to an otherwise institutional environment. She realized her dream of sharing the food and culture of her native country with the opening of Alma Cocina Latina.

Joining Irena in bringing the spirit of Venezuela to Baltimore is Alma's Executive Chef Enrique Limardo. Enrique began his career in the kitchens of major restaurants in Caracas before undertaking formal culinary studies in Sant Pol de Mar, Spain. He further broadened his experience in Mexico, across the Caribbean, and around the world before returning to his native Venezuela, where he opened two restaurants in which he fused traditional and global flavors and techniques. Enrique moved to Baltimore to collaborate with Irena on opening Alma Cocina Latina. There, his "kitchen without borders" elevates Venezuelan-inspired food to astounding heights. As an example of the passion that Irena and Enrique bring to their endeavor, they partnered with local farmers to grow ají dulce - a sweet pepper that is foundational to Venezuelan cooking, but was not available in Baltimore. They now use 2,000 pounds of them every year throughout Alma's menu.

Forty members and guests of the two bailliages arrived eager to try a cuisine with which most were unfamiliar. It quickly became clear that it was going to be a truly special evening. Irena greeted everyone individually, as though she were inviting them into her home, not just her restaurant. A glass of Champagne - Jean-Noël Haton "Heritage" NV - punctuated her gracious welcome. This rich and creamy wine, from a fourth-generation family-owned estate in Damery, just 7 km from Épernay, is 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir and was a perfect start to the affair.

As Irena, Baltimoreans, and Washingtonians mingled, servers passed two exquisite hors d'oeuvres: Arepita Mar y Montana was shrimp tartar dressed in 2-year preserved lemon dressing atop a miniature pork arepa served with calamari and octopus stew with sofrito, mint and cilantro. The Sweet Plantain Lollipop was sweet plantain terrine enrobed in yuca root and quinoa tempura, accented with an avocado and tajin purée, white and purple cabbage, passion fruit mayonnaise, goat cheese, micro greens, and melao de papelón. Both were an amazing melding of traditional Venezuelan ingredients and innovative flavors and technique, and hinted at the exciting tastes, textures, and presentations to come.

Dinner opened with Caribbean Tuna Tataki - alternating layers of fresh, raw yellowfin tuna loin and king salmon which had been marinated in ají dulce juice and cilantro powder, served with fermented pineapple and mango purée, crispy quinoa, ginger, chives, and a drizzle of Alma's house-made Soya Latina sauce. A mango spritz - a Champagne cocktail with passion fruit and vanilla - perfectly linked to the flavors of the Tataki and became integral to the dish. The plating of this course was stunning in its colors and geometric perfection. (A bit of behind-the-scenes detail: Originally, a smaller portion of this dish was proposed as a passed hors d'oeuvre. But upon seeing this gorgeous presentation, all at the tasting dinner agreed it needed to be served plated.)

The next course was inspired by Pastel de Chucho, a traditional lasagna-like dish from Margarita Island, just off the coast of Venezuela. The classic version is layered with skate, cheese, and plantains, and is always eaten with a small salad. Chef Limardo reinterpreted and elevated it into a Ravioli de Chucho: a sweet plantain ravioli filled with skate fish stew was topped with a creamy telita sauce, with chorizo oil and squid ink. Dehydrated cilantro powder completed the composition, which paid homage to its origins in a most sophisticated and delicious fashion. The citrus and fruit aromas and balanced acidity of the 2013 Bodega Monteviejo "Lindaflor" Chardonnay worked beautifully with the flavors of the dish. Made from 100% Chardonnay grown at high-altitude in the Mendoza region of Argentina on the eastern edge of the Andes, this wine is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.

Pato Cacao Cambur followed. Hudson Valley Duck magret was cooked sous-vide to perfection in chocolate and served with a generous slice of rum- and herb-marinated fois gras torchon sandwiched between brioche crostini brushed with truffle oil and merkén. A ring of dulce de leche and roasted pineapple purée on the plate encircled an intensely flavored Venezuelan cacao and duck demi-glace, with a slice of roasted banana finishing the presentation. The deep color and full, rounded flavors of the 2013 Château Haut Gléon Corbières from the Languedoc region of France made for a wonderful pairing. Made from 65% Syrah, 20% Grenache, and 15% old vine Carignan, each variety is matured separately in 228‑liter oak barrels for 12 months.

Chef Limardo combined Japanese style and Venezuelan flavors to create Wagyu Niguiri for the next course. Australian Wagyu Coulotte, perfectly cooked sous-vide in garlic, rosemary, and thyme, was accented with chimichurri and rested upon boldly spiced arroz congri,. A bright stripe of guasacaca and small circle of spicy five-chili Alma sauce were colorful and delicious garnishes on the plate, perfectly complementing the wonderful flavors of the beef and arroz. The 2001 Morey-Saint-Denis Premier Cru Baulets from Domaine Bourée Fils was a perfect pairing. This Burgundy had aged beautifully over the past 16 years, developing great depth while retaining the fresh and bright aromas and color that this course needed.

Dessert was a fantastic Marquesa. Vanilla-caramel ice cream was accompanied by almond butter cream, dollops of intense vanilla toffee, and a macadamia-almond crumble. Freshly grated lemon zest added a delightful hint of freshness as a subtle counterpoint to the richness of the dish. The plate was finished with crisp almond crackers and wafer-thin meringue. Rather than wine, 18 year old Flor de Caña (Spanish for sugarcane flower) rum was an inspired choice to accompany this indulgent course. This is Nicaragua's premier rum and is aged in small white oak bourbon barrels sealed with plantain leaves.

Chef Limardo's mignardise were as fun as they were delicious: Enrique took inspiration from Cri-Cri, a popular candy bar made by Nestlé in Venezuela to create his own, elevated version of the iconic treat. His Cri-Cri was a sophisticated bar of dark and milk chocolate, crispy hazelnut praline, peanut butter, white chocolate, and strawberry powder. Fantastic!

The final culinary treat of the night was a bite-size mint and vanilla meringue. Alone, they were delicious, but this was all about the presentation. All eyes turned to Alma's manager, Chris Scott, as he entered the dining room with the meringues floating in a bubbling, billowing cauldron of ‑330°F liquid nitrogen. Chris ceremoniously presented each diner with a meringue. Upon biting it, it shattered and "smoke" poured from mouths and noses as the profoundly frozen confection met warm breath. The room erupted in giggles and the clicks of cameras. For several delightful minutes, the often staid Chaîne enjoyed playing with their food. A few diners observed Enrique and his team in the kitchen also having fun with the "smoking" treats - a great example of the wonderful spirit at Alma.

Baltimore Bailli Stuart Goldberg and Washington Bailli Judith Mazza congratulated Irena and Enrique and the entire team at Alma Cocina Latina - including General Manager Chris Rivera, Manager Chris Scott, and Director of Sales Andrea Bossano - for a truly memorable evening. They presented Irena and Enrique a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs plate as a token of the Chaîne's appreciation and admiration. They also thanked Dan Senecal and Jeff Sarfino of Lanterna Distributors in Baltimore for their central role in pairing and presenting the wines and spirits for the evening.

Irena closed the evening by noting how pleased she was to introduce the Chaîne to the flavors, hospitality, and culture of Venezuela. "Besides tragedies, we have tremendous treasures," she observed. Indeed, they do. And some of those treasures are found right in Baltimore at Alma Cocina Latina.

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