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

Quest of Conscience

One quickly gets the impression that Max Levy doesn't waste time or energy on trivialities. Life is short, and who knows what happens afterward? Chances are this is the only go-around. So, as people say, "Carpe Diem." Waaaaaaaaaaay overused platitude. An old Latin student, I cringe every time I hear it bandied in film and/or everyday life, often sarcastically or thoughtlessly, by people who clearly have little sincere intention in getting to the marrow. But Max seems different.

Chef Max Levy of Okra  (C) Michelle Proksell, 2014

Chef Max Levy of Okra

(C) Michelle Proksell, 2014

Listening to him, I know he embraces the phrase instinctively (and perhaps it's the mark of such individuals that they never have to say such things; whereas others might need to remind themselves of the obvious - e.g., the dude on his 42nd consecutive hour playing some Call of Duty iteration online, neglecting wife (conversation, sharing of tales, outrageously mind-expanding lovemaking), laundry, books, taxes, and countless other possibilities...He really might do well to take stock every now and then and tell himself, "Yeah, tempus motherf****** fugit.") It makes sense, then, that Levy, Chef and owner of the award-winning Okra Sushi and Cocktail Bar, was already cooking up gumbo at an age when a lot of his cohort were still tasting sand at recess; seriousness, dedication to craft, and appreciation of the mortal clock is just hard-wired in him. Possessing such qualities is one thing, and a restaurant with a chef armed with them is in good hands indeed.

(C) Okra Sushi, 2014

(C) Okra Sushi, 2014

And yet Levy's fertile mind elevates him well beyond the level of expert technician-craftsman. He's a kind of artist-philosopher-natural scientist chef, and with him, talking about a plate of food is more than a basic enumeration of ingredients, prices, markets, etc.; you're going to get treated to a meandering, yet fully engaging discourse on the history of various species of pig, their migrations/introductions from country to country, and among other things (the following is purely my speculation), the ways in which various environmental stressors can render rib fat "tough".....To those who enjoy hitting the trendiest spots, though, and eating the hottest, newest foods, take heed: Max Levy is not a chef who panders to the hordes. Some people will go into restaurants and order whatever people are talking about, regardless of quality. He joked that some people will go to places and order shoes/boots if their friends tell them to do so: "Yeah, can you believe it?! It's great! They've got the only boot in town!" In a society that often seems to confuse novelty with richness / depth of quality and/or meaning, I really appreciate the kind of person who is willing to take the occasional hit in popularity in the service of truth. People often say that everything should be tried at least once, but this is totally & utterly hogwash - pure logical drivel. In a matter of 10 seconds (really, please do this exercise with me), I can think of several acts, ideas, experiences, etc. that I'd rather never, ever try. And that goes for my friends and family, and hell, even people I don't particularly enjoy (everyone deserves mercy, after all, in the end). I'd rather them be safe than sorry or repentant....Some things just aren't entirely smart or fitting. So I dare you: Go into Okra, and ask Max if for $5 million he'll serve you up some animal crackers, deep-fried Snickers bars, and ketchup atop a choice cut from one of his specially-bred pigs.

(C) Okra Sushi, 2014

(C) Okra Sushi, 2014

I bet my bottom dollar he'll respectfully - we are talking about a gentleman here, after all - refuse your mountain of cash. Go to someone else. Plenty of other chefs will take your money and indulge caprices ranging from the whimsical-but-misbegotten to the purely boredom-induced. When it's a matter of conscience, and when every dish you put out is a natural extension of your mind and cumulative taste, nothing less than Good - the capital "G" kind: unsullied, bathed in light, washed in mountain streams - will do.