Ibérico ham, the latest obsession of the food world, is the well-aged product of cosseted Spanish pigs, at its best hand-sliced, arranged on a plate, and eaten plain with the fingers, preferably while one is sipping on a cold glass of fino sherry. The black pigs that make Ibérico ham are raised in and around Spain’s cork-oak forests, fattened on a combination of acorns and grain. The most prized pigs, sold as jamón ibérico de bellota, basically roam free their entire lives, foraging for acorns — it’s the porcine equivalent of raising a kid in a candy store. Advocates claim that Ibérico fat is as healthy as pure olive oil. Ibérico, which just started being imported into the United States, is one of the most expensive meats on Earth — the plain-wrap Ibérico runs about $90 a pound, and the bellota hams, unavailable until July, are being sold for more than you probably paid for your first car.
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A close shave: Chef Robert Trester slices Jamón Redondo Iglesias — not Ibérico, but with 18 months of age.
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A taste as old as cold water
You may be familiar with the sensations provided by good prosciutto or Kentucky ham, but Ibérico is something else. Slightly chewy, the rude red of a Francis Bacon painting, it dissolves slowly into a rondelay of flavors — hazelnuts, sweat, caramel, smoke, amber, Parmesan cheese — that dance around each other like sunlight reflected off a rippled pond.
It is something like bliss to settle down to a plate of Ibérico and a glass of cava at the new Bar Pintxo down on Santa Monica Boulevard, a tiny place, barely bigger than a subway car, with a Basque name, Catalan aspirations, and pan-Spanish food crafted by Joseph Miller, the auteur of the popular Joe’s in Venice. You could have the merely amazing jamón serrano, aged 18 months and also hewn to order, for half the price of the Ibérico here, but there is something about seeing a long knife flash into an $800 ham and knowing that those slices are for you.
The name of the restaurant plays off a couple of things. “Pintxo” is the Basque equivalent of the Spanish pincho, the most basic of all tapas, which is more or less a bite of something on a slice of bread, meant to be nibbled with drinks, like an Italian bruschetta. (At rough bars in Spain, the pincho can be as basic as a single canned sardine on toast, although it is usually more elaborate.) The name Bar Pintxo also riffs on the name of Bar Pinotxo (Pinotxo is the Catalan name for Pinocchio, and yet another pun on pincho), which is a beloved lunch counter in Barcelona’s old Boqueria market, famous for garbanzos, garlicky seafood breakfasts and a dish of tiny squid cooked with beans. The last time I was at Bar Pinotxo, I had an enormous earthenware bowl of tripe, blood sausage and chickpeas, and it wasn’t quite 7 a.m.
Santa Monica’s Bar Pintxo is clearly a good addition to the neighborhood, which is rich in pubs, pizza dives and expensive seafood restaurants, but somewhat lacking in places where you might stop in for a glass of something after a movie at the Monica 4. The only seats are on tall, wobbly stools, which are almost unbearable after an hour or so but have the desired effect of making the tables turn fast. The all-Spanish wine list includes expensive bottles from Ribera del Duero and Priorat as well as perfectly sound garnachas for $5 a glass; cult wines like an ’87 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva from Rioja and the delicious Avinyó cava rosat, a sparkling pink wine from Penedès that goes down like fizzy lemonade. (There is, however, neither fino sherry nor vermouth, the classic accompaniments to tapas, which is odd.) The dark-wood shelving, rows of wine bottles, stink of garlic and hanging hams even feel Spanish, or at least as Spanish as you can get without choking concentrations of cigarette smoke.
But a place that calls itself Bar Pintxo is setting expectations pretty high, and the actual cooking here doesn’t always meet them. Tapas, served on a doughy slice of baguette, range from a perfectly good endive with walnut-studded blue cheese to Serrano ham buried under tasteless sofrito, from tart roasted peppers with tuna to a composition of mayonnaisey crab salad and smoked salmon that tastes like something your mom might have scooped out of an Underwood can. The whipped foie gras tapa is perfectly fine, especially for the $8 it costs; the version of pa amb tomàquet, the popular Catalan snack of grilled bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, is reinterpreted as a base for a pile of unripe diced tomato and an anemic sliver of ham. Fried smelts are delicately crunchy, but a recent order of razor clams smelled and tasted as if they had spent too much time at low tide. By the time you have finished your tapas and have moved on to the Catalan spinach with raisins and pine nuts, the crisp croquetas filled with a gooey mixture of ham and cheese or the Cuban-tasting, lemon-doused griddled shrimp, you will undoubtedly have a large pile of damp bread on your plate.
Paella, as with so many dishes that have been elevated to art, is notoriously among the most difficult dishes to cook perfectly, especially in Los Angeles. It is impractical for a restaurant to cook paella over a smoky wood fire, and it is impossible to find fresh snails that have gorged on rosemary. American customers and county health officials are probably uncomfortable with the room-temperature paella that seems to be the norm in Spain. I like paella dry, with a crunchy, well-developed crust. I love the swell, the intense flavor possible with bomba rice, which absorbs so much liquid, although it is ungodly expensive. At Bar Pintxo, the paella, flavored with things like cauliflower and salt cod, comes out from the kitchen in what look like plastic deli containers, it comes to the table in small paella pans, and although it tastes fine, the texture is sodden.
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But still, there is that ham.
“I thought the Ibérico was good, but it wasn’t like it was a revelatory experience,” confessed a friend. “Then over the course of the next few days, I found myself thinking of it more and more. Maybe it is $90 a pound, but I need a fix!”
Bar Pintxo, 109 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 458-2012 or www.barpintxo.com. Open daily noon-mid. Beer and wine. 45 minutes validated parking (but instead, park in one of the Second Street city lots). AE, MC, V. Small plates and tapas $3-$10, more for paella and Ibérico ham. Recommended dishes: Ibérico ham, croquetas, gambas al ajillo.