At Jamonera, where every lowball glass and liquor bottle glimmers in light the color of carotid blood and a skeleton traipses across a wall mural bearing a death-harvester’s scythe, you’ll wonder where the vampires have been eating until now.
Our culture may be steeped in True Blood and Twilight, but the dinner hour has belonged to Michael Pollan and his loud-shouting moralists for an organically fed dog’s age. At this point, there are probably people out there who’ve never eaten in a restaurant that didn’t look like an urban farmhouse.
So how refreshing it is to see Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran—whose Barbuzzo is a wood-fired exemplar of quasi-agrarian urbanity—come along and flip the farm-to-table script with a sherry-fueled, bordello-lit
Spanish vibe. They’ve restyled the former home of Bindi on 13th Street as “Barbuzzo’s sexy older sister”—the kind who doesn’t want her heirloom squashes to steal attention from the fang marks on her neck.
Start with the sherry. It’s all over the cooking here (amontillado on foie and mushrooms, manzanilla in the clam and chorizo fideos, oloroso on truffled mushroom toast), but by the glass, the variety is tremendous. In March, the list featured 32 sherries in 10 styles, from fino to moscatel. And importantly for a beverage prone to oxidation, Jamonera was managing to sell more of the spirit in a week than Turney reckons most Spanish restaurants sell in a year. The palo cortado that came to me was as densely aromatic as a caramel-coated apple but went down with a crispness akin to barely sweetened vinegar.
If sherry isn’t your thing, explore the all-Iberian wine list, which runs from Basque txakoli to biodynamically produced bobal from the outstanding Bodegas y Viñedos Ponce in Manchuela. (Perucchi vermouth splashed over a knob of ice is another tasty option, but my splash was pretty skimpy.) Whatever the case, before you know it you’ll have hit up Jamonera’s lengthy menu for more tapas, tostas and raciones than you’ll be able to remember.
Start lowbrow with papas fritas, whose wood-smoked garlic aioli won’t prevent you from recognizing the dish for what it is: the most awesome potato skins you’ll ever douse with a sherry vinegar sauce whose name (el cojonudo) is derived from Spanish slang for testicles.
Among the Spanish bar fare, pumpkin croquetas are the other standout: deep-fried balls oozing with Urgelia cheese, served with a rustic puree of pumpkin seeds and browned butter. But what’s this nestled against the golden breading? Pickled fronds of brussels sprout? And were those pea leaves tucked between the haricots verts and roasted sunchokes before?
Yes. They were. And suddenly Turney’s uncanny knack for zeroing in on the latest ingredients of the zeitgeist swings into view.
Juicy merguez sausage is spiked with the Frenched-up masala spice blend vadouvan. Raw oysters not topped with cava gelée are liable to be zested with Buddha’s hand. Shishito peppers pop with strangely vegetal sweetness in a mound of saffron-and-sofrito-infused Calasparra rice. (By summer, the padron chilies will be in, one out of every few peppers a random firecracker against the mild-mannered majority.)
Some of these ingredients are deployed as touchstones of authenticity. Others are departures into idiosyncrasy. But pretty much all of them make for delicious fun—even if it’s the kind of fun that makes you wonder if, 10 years from now, Buddha’s hand will seem as wackadoodle as circa-1988 raspberry vinaigrette.
Besides, Turney’s trend-spotting is offset by a depth of engagement with classic Spanish foodstuffs that rivals Jose Garces’s culinary curatorship. Do you like chorizo? Jamonera was using five varieties the last time I went, from smoky chistorra links from Basque country (on an egg-and-short-rib-smothered plate of papas fritas that played like a Spanish one-up on poutine) to foot-and-a-half-long canteplano sausages crafted by a Spanish expat in California, and a house-made duck chorizo enriched with fat trimmed from slices of Fermin Iberico ham.
No single dish here stopped the show, but none marred it, either. Chefs de cuisine Paul Lyons and Nikki Hill execute Turney’s menu with precision and even pacing. Sherry vinegar was a tad too conspicuous a tad too often in an early meal, but the second time around, the proper balances had been struck.
Both times, careful coursing by well-versed servers set up welcome complements and contrasts. What better to cut through those papas fritas than tender rings of calamari a la plancha tossed with the first favas of the season? That pea-leafed salad came as though from a winter’s dream of springtime gardens—or maybe that was just the effect of its arrival alongside pig’s-tail barbecue mounded on toast, as rich and sweet as a bad girl’s lie.
Philadelphia may not have been suffering a shortage of tapas bars before Jamonera joined the mix, but it has needed help kicking its addiction to farm-to-table tropes. And with Jamonera, 13th Street, at least, is no longer completely under the sway of Philadelphia’s dogmatic dirt enthusiasts.
Which, of course, demands the question: Does Barbuzzo have any other older sisters we haven’t met yet?