Here's my feeling: a chef with imperial aspirations had better be a damned inspiring teacher and employer if his worldly outposts are going to succeed in his absence. I've never known a one to expand beyond four or five restaurants in multiple cities without some risk to the reputation for quality that allowed him or her to expand in the first place. For me, Todd English is the ultimate cautionary tale, almost single-handedly putting the Boston dining scene on the map back in the 1990s with Olives and Figs before getting too big for his chef's whites and becoming a kitchenware-hawking, bride-jilting, rent-ducking tabloid joke.
Sandoval doesn't appear to have been bitten by the fame bug to the extent English was; he seems to be a stand-up guy with a work ethic that, as I understand it, keeps him on the road most of the time, doing quality control at his operations all over the globe—I believe there are about 30 from Denver to Dubai. Even so, any given restaurant is only as good as its chef de cuisine, and the really good ones tend to move on quickly with ambitions of their own (case in point: Troy GuardTK got his start with Sandoval). I've had decent but never memorable meals at Tamayo. I've had absolutely swoony experiences at Zengo—and utterly disappointing ones. The one time I was at Venga Venga in Snowmass, the food was killer—but Sandoval was on-site; whether the kitchen is as deft when he isn't I can't say. (Haven't been to La Sandía.) Ultimately I consider Zengo the most stimulating and distinctive of the bunch; it's his statement on Latin-Asian fusion that's definitive, I think.
After finally getting a chance to meet him he seemed like a genuinely likable guy and a consummate restaurant professional. You did an interview with him a couple years back. What was that like? Where can we find it?
Yeah, I included him in the Meals That Made Them series that I do with a longtime Boston colleague, Louisa Kasdon, for Zester Daily. That interview, which took place on the terrace of Venga Venga, was super-easy—he was very gracious, relaxed and yet focused, which I appreciated. It was nice to get a glimpse of him as a kid growing up with a formidable-sounding abuela in Mexico, and to hear firsthand his genuine passion for the cuisine of his homeland.
Ha. Well, like you, I appreciate the fact that it's succinct and conceptually appropriate, in terms both of its dedication to Spanish and South American bottles—only 2 of 20 bottles are otherwise—and its format, with all offerings by the half- and full pour as well as the bottle. I also think that it's sufficiently progressive, taking some chances with lesser-known varietals like Viura and Montrasell (at prices befitting a tapas bar to boot).
The menu is tapa-like. Some in a traditional Spanish way, others in the broad sense of being a small plate of food. What worked for you? What didn't?
It's fun to compare my reaction to your response—we totally agree about the bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed dates, which may be ubiquitous, but they don't always stand out. These were especially luscious due to the quality of each ingredient, starting with those fat dates. However, I really liked the patatas bravas, all the more for being kinda weird; I'd have sworn they were tater tots, and only now that I look back at the photo I see they weren't! Just unusually soft and fluffy somehow. To me they didn't seem underseasoned, though the chorizo-crumbled chipotle romesco certainly enhanced them. Even weirder, I don't even remember eating lamb meatballs! Did I like them?
Everyone likes lamb meatballs, so yes. After four glasses of wine and a cocktail, however, anything can be amazing and then completely forgotten. (But these were a standout.)
My favorite thing, though, was the fluke crudo with rhubarb, strawberry, and pickled garlic vinaigrette. Crudo preparations are often too gingerly; I understand that you don't want to impinge on the delicacy of the fish, but you're not doing it any favors by showcasing it against a bland backdrop either. This had some oomph without seeing any less pristine.
I'll definitely return for some of the funkier-sounding plates we didn't try, like the anchovy, quail egg, white bean, and peppadew panzanella or the short rib en cazuela with parsnips and olives. And Al Lado is much sexier than rather homely Ondo's. Whether the output will prove as special or memorable remains to be seen, but I suspect there's room for both.
Yes, Ondo's is stuck with a most unfortunate location but I wouldn't call it homely. For my spin on Ondo's, Al Lado and more, please visit Denveater's site where she was brave enough to post my thoughts on this new restaurant.