Besos Prohibidos

At Miss New York week in 2011, we heard from a couple other families that there was a terrific tapas place right close to the St. George Theater in Staten Island, where the pageant is held. We are notoriously short on time for leisurely dinners while we’re down there, because we’re chasing around pageant girls at appearances and so forth, so we never made it to the spot to test it out. This year, I knew Big Hungry Jill was joining us for the Friday night preliminary pageant, so we made sure to set aside enough time to find it and enjoy. It’s called Beso Restaurant, and it is absolutely a hidden gem in the forgotten borough.

Let’s not forget that SI is not the spot on which most folks focus when visiting New York City. It’s primarily residential, congested, and there aren’t many tourist attractions. That said, I’m told the ferry ride is the best way to see the Statue of Liberty save for going to Ellis Island. We had intended to ride the ferry ourselves this trip, but parking and traffic conspired against us that day. Once on SI, see a show at the St. George or make your way to the South Beach area, but make sure to grab a meal at Beso.

One charming corner of Beso
The interior of the space is an immediate relief from the exterior, which is on a grimy little side street perpendicular to the main drag of the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the ferry. The theme is, predictably, Spanish, with cozy vignettes here and there, and rustic, wooden tables arranged well in the small space. Over the bar hangs a naked lady print that made me laugh because the first time I ever ate at a tapas joint, my Mom thought I said “topless,” and was shocked I would go there with co-workers.

As one does at a tapas restaurant, we ordered an opening round of drinks and eats and got down to business: caipirinha (yes, I know that’s Barzilian) for me, jalapeno margarita for Jill, and I think Dad had a beer. We loaded up the table for the first time with fried goat cheese, guacamole and chips, and coconut shrimp. But first, some bread and olives were brought out that looked innocuous but tasted like so much more. The olives, in a garlic-laced oil bath, were fantastic – not too salty, intensely garlicky and almost cheesy in their consistency. Tiny cornichons, or sour pickles, in the oil bath also packed a garlic punch and I could have eaten at least three more of these. The oil provided a delicious dipper for the bread, which was a bland backdrop, but hearty in texture.

The queso frito, or fried goat cheese, was a big hit, with murmurs of appreciation all around the table. The little fried balls of creamy, tangy cheese were very lightly battered and served with pickled red onions and a honey lemon sauce. The onions were an integral component instead of a simple garnish – they added the acid and snap the rich lusciousness of the cheese demanded.

Mom went nuts over the guacamole, which I thought was OK. It was good, but not extraordinary; I like the lime and cilantro flavors more predominate in mine. The tortilla chips, however, were made in house, which is always a bonus. They were flour, not corn, which was a crunchy, light switch from the norm, and they made a substantial and satisfying base for the creamy guac.

We ordered the coconut shrimp because it’s one of Mom’s favorite things. I wouldn’t normally opt for something like that at a Spanish restaurant, but one must appease the parentals. They were OK, the coconut-studded breading light and not over-sweet. But the standout on this plate was the dipping sauce – a mango mayonnaise that was fatty and provided a heavenly mouth feel to the dish, elevating it, if only slightly, from an Outback Steakhouse-echoing appy.

The next round of food was larger because we were joined by Stan and Deltra, who are loyal and vital members of our pageant board. Our expanded table of six next ordered: ajillo, chorizo with manchego, sashimi tuna with sundried tomato salsa, maduro, sueos, pollo montadito, and bistek cobrales.

Ready for Round Two(seriously, how cute is Jill?)

So, the first time I ever ate tapas was back in 2005, at Jaleo in Bethesda, MD. Thud. Because Jaleo is a Chef Jose Andreas-owned affair, it’s just about the best tapas in the country. And it may have ruined me for fully enjoying a lovely meal such as this. I know it ruined me for the garlic shrimp (ajillo), which at Beso were served in a smoked paprika and sherry sauce that did absolutely nothing for me. At Jaleo, they were terrifically garlicky and buttery. Beso’s version of the Spanish classic just couldn’t live up to those few magical bites I tried way back when.

The sashimi tuna, whose place in traditional Spanish cuisine may be dubious, was much more successful for me. The beautifully rare fish was smothered in a piquant and earthy sundried and fresh tomato and olive relish. I had more than one small serving of this clean dish that still felt indulgent.

My other favorite, and this should be no surprise, was the sueos, which I kept thinking of as bacon pizza. I mean, come on. Was this dish designed for me? Did they know I was coming? Grilled bacon, olive tapenade and manchego cheese, which is the parmesan of Spain, topped a flatbread with a sprinkling of shredded romaine, lightly dressed with a pungent vinaigrette. This combination seemed odd, but hit the palate on all levels: crispy, airy bread, rich, salty bacon and earthy black olives, nutty, mellow cheese, and the acidic tang and fresh crunch of the romaine and pico de gallo salad on top. If you like a little arugula on your prosciutto pizza, you’ll like this stunner.

My Dad’s two top picks are next: grilled skewers of spicy, paprika-laced chorizo sausage with bell peppers, onions and tetilla cheese. Tetilla cheese originates in the Galicia region of Spain – I looked it up so you don’t have to! – and was melted down over each little nugget of sausage. I’m usually a fab of chorizo, but it didn’t sing, for me, in this presentation. The dish needed a dipping sauce or a drizzle of something sweet and spicy; it needed some zing. The bistek cobrales, or beef medallions topped with melted Spanish bleu cheese, were equally simple, though much tastier. The cobrales bleu cheese packed huge flavor and set off all the umami flavor of the tender steak. These slender slices may have been little, but they were mighty.

Last but not least, Mom’s two favs from round two: pollo motadito and maduro. The pollo montadito, chicken medallions pan-fried and served with creamy mushroom sauce and cheese, were a safe bet for a conservative palate. These were savory and earthy, very tasty, but not dramatic. The maduro, a whole plantain stuffed with shredded chicken and chipotle sour cream, was another questionable dish in a traditional Spanish joint – aren’t chipotle and plantain more Meixcan and Peurto Rican than Spanish? – but fine. I wished the plantain, which is the consistency of a banana crossed with a sweet potato, but more savory, had been given a little spice, a little more care. The dish came off a little flat for me. While it was plentiful and satisfactory, I didn’t get much zing from the supposed chipotle, the chicken wasn’t overly well seasoned, and the plantain itself was too mild. It’s all about what you like, though, correct? My Mom liked these two dishes, while the more flavorful choices were my favorites.

When all the dishes had been cleared and we were ready to move on to night two of preliminary competition at Miss New York, I took a poll on everyone’s dinners. The vote put us at an eight on the BHS scale, while my personal opinion was a seven. I thought the service could have been a little more attentive, and that there were definite weak and strong dishes, while others at the table felt it was good all around, and that the warm, festive d├ęcor pushed the score higher. No matter the score, this IS a strong contender for great dinners in Staten Island, a corner of the state that’s growing in my esteem due to positive food experiences, even if the traffic makes me crazy.

I think I have one more review in me before I leave for a vacation in Hilton Head, Big Hungries. I can’t tell you how excited I am to get to the beach with my besties from the St. Andrews College days. Meantime, you’ll be glad to know I did survive the Jimmy Buffett extravaganza without any of the following unseemly things happening: vomit, injury, passing out, dying, falling down or being grievously hung over. A good time was had by all, in fact, until a good bit after the show, just as we were finishing up post-Buffett burgers in paradise, when an ornery bicycle cop decided to take his day-long aggressions towards much more intoxicated people out on us, yelling and screaming and beginning Miranda rights in our general direction. But still, we emerged victorious without having to bail any of our party out of jail. Hallelujah. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Fins up, bitches!

PS: I’m almost to 10,000 readers on Blogspot. It’s madness, and it’s wonderful. Thank you so much for reading. I appreciate you, and I hope you have some fun eating around the state and the globe with me. I’m humbled.

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