Don’t Miss ‘Food is Art’ at Aro Bar de Tapas

Aro Bar de Tapas in Williamsville is hosting another “Food is Art” special menu on March 29th from 5-8 PM, and you should call to reserve a spot.

Part I: The Review of Food is Art

I had the opportunity to attend the last “Food is Art’ event at Aro Bar de Tapas, and have had a post brewing for about a month now, so it looks like this is perfect timing as they’re doing it again. Admittedly, one of the main reasons I’ve held off is because my Google Pixel photos can’t hold a candle to their strong Instagram game – but I’ll do my best.

I’ve always loved Tapas style eating and until Aro opened in February 2016, this had been a large void in Western NY’s restaurant scene. Aro is run by former fellow food blogger/tech writer Jeremy Horwitz and his wife Christina. More to come on Jeremy, but lets jump into the food.

Tapas eating is fun and challenging. When done right, it becomes a blend of warm and familiar with an opportunity to push past your comfort a bit and try new things. It is a great way to challenge your palate because with a small plate, because nothing is really wasted. Making only one entree decision is among the most vexing parts of my eating life. Tapas is a forgiving orgy of food opportunity with little buyers remorse.

So when I was invited to the first Food is Art event, I reached out to my friend Dan Higgins, local writer, podcaster, and budding adventure eater and we arrived at just around 6:30 on a chilly Wednesday evening. We were greeted by Christina Horwitz – co-owner and wife of Jeremy. She also handled the interior design, which is warm, rustic,and includes various photos and memories from their travels around the world.This event is prix fixe, so one set price included the entire tour of the menu. There were 18 different dishes in play here, so I didn’t feel limited as I often do with a set menu. In a tapas style setting, this is a great way to explore a strong variety of tastes without the bill getting too expensive. The menu was five courses, and I’ll do my best to show what we had.

COURSE ONE: APERITIVOS, JAMON & QUESO
Snacks, Ham & Cheese

Toasted pecans are brought to the table, and we snacked on them between courses throughout the meal. I appreciate any sort of opener while I peruse a menu, and this was a solid touch.

QUESO A LA PARRILLA
sandwich with garrotxa, manchego, idiazabal, & mahón cheeses, honey

I find the Queso a la Parrilla sandwich to be the gateway drug to Tapas food. When I encourage picky people to try this style of cuisine, I do it with this sandwich in mind. So very simple, like any grilled cheese it comes down to proper preparation and good ingredients. A warm soft bread with a great crusty chew is stuffed with four different cheese, warmed and melted, and drizzled with honey. I Imagine grabbing something like this wrapped in waxed paper from a panaderia in Barcelona and eating it on the run. I’d love to try this next time with some delicious serrano jamon, but I feel like it would be almost perverting what is delicious in its simplicity.

If the first dish had mass appeal, let it suffice to change that this swiftly changes gears as we look at the other opening dish – Blue Cheese Ice Cream. If you enjoy Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Chopped – you know that ice cream made with savory ingredients can be a huge win, or an inedible failure. The dish came with a caveat –  “If you enjoy blue cheese, we thing you’ll love this ice cream. But if blue cheese isn’t your thing, I would get something else.” I happen to love all forms of blue cheese.There have been an unfortunate number of weekday mornings when my wife has come downstairs to find an empty bottle of wine and half of a chunk of stilton still mellowing on the counter – so I was all in. I found this to be a frozen tribute to my favorite cheese. Very creamy and just enough sharpness from the cheese to balance off the honey and almonds. I think if I were to take a cracker, smear it with honey and some almonds, top it with a dollop of this ice cream and not tell someone what it was – you’d probably enjoy it.  Needless to say, I was enamored with this dish. My dining companion however – who does not share my unnatural passion for blue cheese – gave it a college try on the taste and passed. I will note, there will be a piece of me that is going to want to go off the deep end with this and some sort of weird chicken wing infusion. I may have to bribe the kitchen for a quart the next time it’s on the menu. A menu where all items appeal to every diner is boring. I applaud the kitchen for the courage to offer this dish.

COURSE TWO: VENDURAS
Vegetables

ROMANESCO & ROMESCO
romanesco, marcona almond, romesco sauce

Did I lose you on the blue cheese? I really hope not, because this next dish was a lot of fun. A play on two very similar words, Romeso is a very popular and colorful Spanish sauce made from peppers, almonds, olive oil, herbs, some sherry, and paprika. It can also be used as a condiment and imparts a balance of heat and smoke with a very earthy flavor. It is found as an accompaniment to fish, chicken, or meat and is also used as a dip for vegetables or bread. Romanesco on the other hand is a strikingly chartreuse colored vegetable that tastes like a combination of broccoli and cauliflower and has the unique geometric pyramid shape. If you’d like to geek out a bit, the shape is actually consider a true fractal, which is a math set that shows the same repeating patter on each scale. This was a witty dish because I mix the two terms up constantly and can never remember which is which. As far as taste, the two similar sounding components complimented each other quite well.

Our second vegetable dish was a beautiful array of locally grown Flat 12 mushrooms. I enjoyed this deep and rich mushroom dish, and appreciated that all of the varieties of mushrooms were able to stand and hold their flavors on their own. The panna cotta was rich and earthy. There is a lot of creativity here, and that extends to the plating as well. Dealing with mushrooms presented in “edible dirt” as is the case here, we have a lot of deep browns and dank colors. While I think the current trend of negative space is really overdone and unnecessary in most cases, I appreciated the use of a white plate with a lot of room, as it seemed to visually brighten the shade loving mushrooms.

COURSE THREE: MAR
Seafood

ATUN Y RABANOS
seared ahi tuna, meyer lemon, radish variations

As the seafood course rolled out, the ahi tuna was fresh and bright, much in the style of a crudo. The outer sear was just enough and the liberal olive oil drizzle brought the clean and refreshing Meyer lemon flavor front and center. The crunchy salt rounded the dish off and gave it balance. I do not profess a love for radish as a food or garnish, and will always dodge them on my plate, but that’s just me. This dish was the most safe play of the evening.

Scallops for me are usually an afterthought. I enjoy them, but something else always appeals to me on the menu. Enter Tapas – where you’re never limited to just one protein. We were really excited when this dish came out. The type of excitement you get when you’re at your favorite Italian joint and they bring that steaming bowl of spaghetti and meatballs or pasta and clams out. This was one of the favorites for the night and really showcased some of the creative skills happening in the kitchen. Scallops are perfect on their own, naked. Their best prep is always seasoned with salt and pepper and seared off in a pan. From there – it gets really tricky to add to their sweet deliciousness without gilding the lily. Bringing in plumped golden raisins amplified the natural sweetness of the shellfish, while the charred onion brought out more of that seared crust flavor that makes a simple pan seared scallop so delicious. Not one for unnecessary garnishes, I was pleased that the parsley was fried, so it actually added to the dish as well as made for a better presentation.

COURSE FOUR:TIERRA
Meat

SOLOMILLO CON AJO
grilled hanger steak, cauliflower, black garlic, romesco sauce

The grilled hanger steak seemed considerably simple when compared to the other options on the menu, but sometimes the devil is in the detail. Also called a “hanging tender” this cut, once discarded to be ground up or taken home for the butcher’s family, is swiftly gaining popularity as a very tender and densely flavored piece of meat. I had some questions as to the preparation of the beef and Executive Chef Robert Mahoney came out to fill us in. The meat here is sous vide to medium rare, and then served over the previously-mentioned romesco sauce with a piece of black garlic. I was intrigued by the garlic, which turns black when it is intentionally aged under humidity to mellow out its flavor, and was told that they do indeed make their black garlic in house. The steak was tender, I enjoyed the sauce, and I liked the opportunity to sample the black garlic as I’ve only seen it on dishes when traveling. I’d appreciate the option to spread it on some crusty bread as well.

The duck dish felt very French to me, but there were sufficient twists to make it unique in its own right. Pairing the components of duck à l’orange with the classic pear and fennel combination, this dish was pretty aggressive, but it accomplished quite a bit. I feel that in the case of duck, known for its rich poultry flavor and juicy fattiness – there is a lot of room for creativity.  I enjoyed the candied orange peel and the crunch of the whole fennel seeds as well. This dish is another example of where Tapas really works. I would always want a taste of a dish like this, but I would likely never order it as my sole entree.

COURSE FIVE: POSTRES
Desserts

There were several photo opportunities for the first dish, but it had two finger swipes through the chocolate as soon as it hit the table. This dessert was playful and delicious. I had actually had a brioche ice cream sandwich in the French pavilion at Epcot center, and wondered why that wasn’t a thing. I guess now it is. The ice cream had the buttery texture and bready flavor you expect from a sweet brioche bun, but held back enough on the sweetness to allow for exploring combinations with the islands of chocolate that studded the plate. Incorporating locally owned Public espresso and our favorite local confection of sponge candy should be noted as well. .

LAVENDER CREMA CATALANA
lavender cream, pears, caramelized honey

And then we get to this… our final dish. If asked “would you like some lavender flan?” – I’d imagine the reply in most cases would be a resounding “No”. Especially when up against the ice cream dish above. (Not the Blue Cheese one – the other one.) If I had a choice, I would never order anything with lavender, nor would I select a custard as a dessert if there were any other options. And perhaps this is where Aro Bar really shines. This simple dish, created in a traditional Spanish style, beautiful. Throughout the meal, we saw it being brought to other diners tables, swathed in a cloud of dry ice fog with hints of what I liken to a colorful food gnome garden that is finally revealed when it is set in front of you. After the requisite photos are taken, a scoop of the custard with the crunchy sugar was reminiscent of a creme brulee, but the flavor was unique unto itself. I feared a perfume-like lavender flavor – like a velamint that would stay in my mouth for an hour after I left, but I was pleasantly surprised at the subtle hint of the flower well balanced by the thick cream and floral honey. Aro Bar took a dish that, while beautiful, would be a hard sell by print only – and made if a visual curiosity that, once you taste it, shines as one of the highlights of the meal.

And with that, our meal was complete. If you enjoy Spanish Tapas – you’ve probably already been here. But I am writing this for the eaters out there that like to try new things, or maybe have been curious about this place but weren’t sure how to approach it. Tapas food is one of the most welcoming and forgiving cuisines. On a regular menu, most dishes are between six and twelve dollars, so you can get several selections and if you don’t like something, someone else will usually eat it and you don’t feel like you wasted a lot of money. I love to eat Tapas in groups, so that we can all sample a lot of things without it getting too expensive. However, I wanted to get this written and published now, because the pricing on this event is really reasonable, even with the beverage pairings, and it gives you a great opportunity to try all of this without breaking the bank.

End Review.

Part II: A very long editorial note:

Mea Culpa – Jeremy Horwitz

I’ve written about food on and off for the past fifteen years. In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people in the local food scene, attend some tremendous restaurant openings I’ll never forget, and really expand my palate and my pride in Western NY.  We are in the midst of a renaissance in the Food of Western New York, and I don’t think there has been a more exciting time. 

I took a break from writing for a bit, and when I decided to get back at it, the first article I was working on was called “2016 – What I got Wrong.” Needless to say, it was really long. But on the top of that list, and something that has been floating around in the back of my head for awhile was Jeremy Horwitz and Aro Bar de Tapas.

A couple of years ago, former local food blogger/attorney/gaming magazine publisher/technology event guru Jeremy announced plans for a huge food market in Western New York. A culinary mecca to rival the St Lawrence Market in Toronto, with the feel of Eatly in New York that showcased food from near and far. As swift as the kickstarter hit social media, it was shot down by many – myself being one of them.  Shortly after, Horwitz announced via a huge social media blitz that he was opening a Tapas Restaurant, and even as Jose Andreas retweeted his announcement and wished him luck, I said “It’s not going to work,” and I joined many of local restaurant groupies and even some professionals with condemnation…

“It’s in the suburbs, not the city.”

“He’s not talking to the right people.”

“He hasn’t ever run a restaurant.”

And so on…

But Horwitz brought in some skilled talent with local ties and a solid pedigree in Tapas cuisine. And as is custom, when the restaurant had its soft opening, a series of invites went out to industry, inviting local chefs to try out this new place in a strip mall on Sheridan. I was not on that list. Nor, after my series of snarky comments on social media, did I expect to be. But several of my friends went, and I got texts throughout the next few days. “It’s fantastic.” “The food is on point.” “This bar program is really dialed in.” Within a week, Aro Bar had established itself as a restaurant with real potential. I felt like an idiot, but stood by my presuppositions. 

A couple of months after the opening, my wife and I went in for dinner with a large group of friends. We sat back and let them order, and I was surprised at every turn. Two of our biggest passions are food and travel, and whenever we are on the road, the first thing we do is try to find a Tapas restaurant. As we ate through the small plates, I realized that, like so many other cuisines in the past few years, what I used to travel for was now right here at home. The food was authentic and delicious, and we loved the bar offerings. But I still wasn’t convinced.

As with any restaurant, there is change and turnover. In talking with Jeremy at our dinner, he said that one of the biggest challenges for him was the transient nature of the restaurant business and staff. To loosely quote him: “When we opened the restaurant with the original team, we all sat at the table and I thought all of these people would be with me in five years. I learned that is not the case in the restaurant business.” Indeed, staff comes and goes in the restaurant world and it can be a cutthroat business. In many restaurants, the owner is also the chef, so they can better manage the transitions in the kitchen when there is turnover, but that is not the case here.

About halfway through its first year, Aro was dealt a one-two punch as the restaurant and the original executive chef and pastry chef parted ways. I don’t know the reasons, or care to, but when this happened, once again the buzz around town was that Aro was “done.” The main talent had left, how could the restaurant survive? Should we cancel our reservation? As many waited for the eventual demise, the restaurant continued on. A friend and his wife went to dinner a few weeks later and texted me… “The food is still great, the service is on. Everything is fine.” and Aro persevered.

As we ate there a third time and Aro approached its first anniversary, I realized I had to admit my error. Why was I so short sighted? I realized that I had been caught up in the trend of what was going on in Western NY. All of these new restaurants didn’t open by accident, and there is a pattern that, for awhile, seemed to be the winning combo to getting your doors open. The Aro approach was so unconventional and different that it seemed like it couldn’t have worked.  

But is it really that unconventional? As I talked to Jeremy, I realized that we have more in common than I thought. We both come from the technology world, he used to run a food blog, and we may have even been in the same World of Warcraft guild at one point. In reality though, he is an attorney and has run several successful projects before Aro. What he may lack in skills behind the stove, he makes up for in managerial and marketing skills. While I’ve dropped small jabs at Aro’s prolific use of social media, I think a lot of local restaurants could take a lesson from this and up their instagram and twitter game. As competition in the city continues to grow, it is going to take every trick in the book to keep those seats filled. Maybe being tucked away in Williamsville wasn’t such a bad idea after all…

At this last visit, we ended up spending three hours in the restaurant, and at the end of the night – everyone was ready to go home. As it wound down, I looked at the Horwitz and saw the same long day and tired look on their faces that I see on so many of my friends that run restaurants. These folks aren’t absentee owners or investors. They’re living it through and through. “We put everything we have into this restaurant.” Whatever success prior careers have brought them are all inside of that business.

In the past few years, a lot of restaurants have opened. I don’t think they’re all going to make it.  It should also be noted that in Buffalo the restaurant industry is in a large part, supported by the restaurant industry, and that is a finite pool of customers. For any new restaurant, after the initial buzz and the newness wears off, will there be sufficient regular clientele established to keep the doors open and pay the bills while the next cool thing opens up down the road? Not everyone will have that staying power, but I am pretty confident Aro will be there.

 I hope this helps me to have a more honest conversation about food, and to be more open minded in what “could be,” and hopefully apply that to writing. There are an awful lot of things I am not qualified to write about in this genre, but I write what I can because I want to learn and explore what we have here in Buffalo, and share what I can in a way that hopefully can encourage regular people like me to go try something new and expand their love of food.

So, my mea culpa to Jeremy Horwitz and Aro Bar de Tapas. I was wrong on this one, and a few other things. And when you decide to go after that mercado concept again, I’ll be the first one on your kickstarter. 

Go eat some Tapas