bāc-tā-gon @ the Opera: Tasting Our Way Through the Afternoon

Yesterday was one of the first scorching days of the (still unofficial) summer, and while I don't know about Zandie, I certainly wasn't prepared to be sating myself on a table of carbs; the time and angle of the sun suggested something more like watermelon juice or coconut water.

And yet...

We arrived at Opera Bombana through the reference of Max Levy, one of last month's A.M. Brainstorm participants and chef/owner of Okra Sushi and Cocktail Bar. Aiming to procure a partnership for the finest possible baked goods for our monthly Brainstorms, we asked Levy to nominate a potential candidate in town, and he gave us word that the morsels coming out of Executive Chef Marino D'Antonio's kitchen are indeed worthy of praise and consideration.

The Interior of Opera Bombana

(C) Opera Bombana, 2014

Breads and pastries at Opera Bombana

Image (C) Zandie Brockett, 2014

Our tasting at Opera Bombana was the happiest of afternoon treats. Indulging on bread, pastries, and almost-too-beautiful-to-eat-teeny-tiny yummies has rarely been so pleasurable. I totally forgot about the coconut water.

First, we were greeted by the genuinely warm and gracious D'Antonio, who sat us down in a comfortable spot adjacent to the bar.

After introducing bāc-tā-gon, its mission, and the A.M. Brainstorm concept to Chef D'Antonio and learning more about his vision at Bombana, we were presented with the first of many impossible-to-refuse creations.

Intimacy with El Bomboloni  Image (C) Zandie Brockett, 2014

Intimacy with El Bomboloni

Image (C) Zandie Brockett, 2014

Now, I have been known to guiltily consume a slice of "Wonder" - white, lacking in taste, nutritional content, and imagination - bread now and then. Opera Bombana's vision of bread reminds me why going for the ubiquitious white breads is invariably met with a pang of guilt: It is a crime against the real, true "essence" of bread. More than flavorful enough to require the usual accomplices of olive oil, butter, and/or cheese, made with the finest of flours and unique ingredients like spelt, capers, and sunflower seeds, this bread is pure wholesome. This is the stuff Ceres, goddess of grains and the harvest, gives you when she's having a banner day.

And then there were two. To the first pastry was added the traditional Roman Maritozzi @ left. Zandie and I had a tough (albeit enviable) situation before us: Which to attack first? Left flank? Right? Or Center (I mean, really, look at that golden brown.....you just know there's a heaven-style flakiness factor awaiting you)?

Mini-desserts at Opera Bombana

Image (c) Zandie Brockett, 2014

But before we could make our choice, the adorable, astoundingly orb-shaped and fluffy, and rather onomatopaic "Bomboloni" arrived......an already difficult choice made painful.

We ultimately decided to go the traditional savory before sweet route, in lieu of a better competing argument. The breads themselves, especially the darker, walnut-infused Segale e Noci, had a bit of natural sweetness to them, and would have been a totally complete and satisfying tasting pair. But yes, there were pastries, like the above Bomboloni, sprinkled with sugar above and filled with an ever-so-subtly-sweet lemon cream filling. A popular summer treat, the Bombolini is now officially a major actor in my imaginary/alternate reality Italian boyhood.....btw, just a hint to friends out there, since we can't really self-nickname....when I hit 65 or 70 and am (hopefully) a jolly, rotund old artist, I really, really wouldn't mind being called any variation of "The Bomboloni".

Cleaned Plates Post-Bombana Tasting + D'Antonio's Contribution to the Collective Business Card

Aitor Olabegoya & the Art of Business

In April's A.M. Brainstorm, attendees were treated to the sun-dappled charisma, humor, and thoughts of Aitor Olabegoya, award-winning executive chef at Migas Restaurant and Bar. Discussing his research of local and regional Chinese ingredients, Aitor showed a video of his investigations into sesame oil production. To many here, sesame oil might seem an ingredient of such prevalence and everyday use as to be analogous to the butter of certain Western countries and kitchens: Always the bridesmaid (or for that matter, always the DJ/Spinner of predictable 80s and mid-90s crowd pleasers), never the bride. Yet, Aitor's video and his enthusiastic portrayal of the life cycle of sesame oil metamorphosed this culinary workhorse into a kind of dietary muse worthy of depiction by Homer ("Sing to me of the Olympian seed...") or the Pre-Raphaelites.

(C) Michelle Proksell, 2014

(C) Michelle Proksell, 2014

It is this dedication to local, unpretentious ingredients, combined with a desire to continually experiment with both process and possibility, that make Aitor's particular brand of new Spanish cuisine a very welcome presence in the Beijing dining scene. At one point, in discussing the natural tension between culinary artistry and the need to keep a business in the black, Aitor mentioned McDonalds' offerings to be both tasty and creative, in his opinion. This writer wanted to press him further on this - assuredly, back in the mid-20th Century their assembly-line-ization of food service was probably revelatory, but I personally can't find much novelty or genius on endless riffs on various hues of deep-fryer brown, and the dozens of ways in which one can posture at ushering in health to menus bereft of it with pathetic sprinklings of ill-looking shards of iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage, and/or yellow corn...but I suppose one could argue there is certain genius in successful posturing, no? - but there were many other, equally engaging questions to field.

Plus, at the time I think I was so absorbed in relishing one of pastry chef Pol's (are-your-salivary-glands-ready-for-such-elegant-temptations) cupcakes that formulating any kind of coherent word pattern would have been a fool's errand...Darn you, Pol, for reminding me how incurable and will-crippling my sweet tooth actually is!

Pastry Chef Pol's unbelievably yummy cupcakes  (C) Michelle Proksell, 2014

Pastry Chef Pol's unbelievably yummy cupcakes

(C) Michelle Proksell, 2014