606 King St. W. $70 Dinner for two How is it that the hottest table in town has slightly dumb service? Is there any sense to every course being delivered by a different person (some of whom make up what’s on the plate)? Or maybe this is something we should appreciate because the chef/owner of Valdez, Steve Gonzalez, gets that the only way to ensure good cooking is to do it yourself rather than swanning around the front of the house.
Valdez styles itself as a “Latino street party” on the menu. Are they trying to tell us something? The dark, noisy room, counter dining at the open kitchen and preponderance of high-tops reinforce the party vibe. And what do you eat at a party? Fun food!
Fun is the flight of ceviche — tiny (mostly) wonderful spoonfuls of raw tuna with passion fruit, yuzu and jalapeno, calamari in its ink with sweet potato, Latino shrimp cocktail with corn nuts, tuna with mixed fruit, and (boring) fruit and veg balls — a great deal for $16. And it begs the question. Latin American? Yes, Claudio Aprile style, thanks to chef Gonzalez’s time at Origin learning the delicate Aprile Asian/Latin alchemy.
Chef crisps impeccable trout with mango citrus salsa, a small chile bite and quinoa salad topped with cute, little crisp-fried shallots. He takes fun food a step further towards party-ville with chaufa — duck confit in a big pile of fried rice scented with sugar and soy with fried egg and edamame. Here meeteth oil, sugar and salt, the triumvirate of fun food. The only thing chef doesn’t do well is clearly the straight-up Latino item that bores him: empanadas of beef and potato are painfully sturdy, dare I say cardboard texture, and their filling bears a disturbing resemblance to porridge.
As for dessert, Gonzalez invents a charming new take on tres leches cake married to rice pudding. Here is coconut, cow’s and condensed milk with rice pudding and a crunchy roof of caramelized banana slices. The only downside is that chef tried to heat his tres leches brûlée but he made the mistake of microwaving it in the wrong bowl, so the bowl got hot but the pudding didn’t.
Which speaks to taking the party up a notch. The chef who dreamt that sexy sushi flight and the delightful trout is worth watching — and will be more so when he extends his control to every corner of his operation.