Top Chef watch: Dinner at Pura Vida

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Watching food television, you ogle a parade of dishes and, though the folks on the screen jabber about the food’s taste, texture, and level of success, it’s always just an image—an idea—for viewers.

Watching a reality competition about chefs thrown into random challenges, you never know how well they cook in comfortable surroundings.

So it felt gratifying to be sitting recently in Pura Vida, eating the cooking of Hector Santiago, the Atlanta chef that Top Chef fans watched struggle on last week’s season premiere. In a town that stuck with the tapas trend past its prime (and then “tapas” was remarketed into universally adored “small plates”), Pura Vida has always brought the t-word respect. Santiago draws on his Puerto Rican heritage and his love of Latin flavors to concoct sunny world-beat nibbles.

And my meal this past week showed that, in his element, Santiago is cooking as strongly as ever. (Apologies for the sad pics; iPhone doesn’t do well in dim restaurants.) A colleague and I started with “steamed coconut buns.” The buns remind me of Peking duck buns made from rice flour, and they are filled with smoked pork belly; shaved cabbage, cilantro, and pickled chilies that coalesced into a slaw of sorts; and tamarind sauce. Fun, bright, flavors. We had fresh-from-the-fryer empanadas with a kicky chicken picadillo stuffing, and chile-sugarcane vinegar on the side for dipping, as well as a citrusy endive and palm heart salad with sour orange vinaigrette that nicely cut revived the palate after the other fried dishes on the table.

The dish that showed the most soul, not surprisingly, was a goat mofongo special. Mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish of fried green plantains mashed and seasoned. Sometimes the frying can desiccate the plantains, but these were soft and lush—even more so from the mote of gravy flecked with pulled goat meat. A great riff on home cooking.

And then there was the other special, familiar to Top Chef watchers: cigar-smoked deep-fried steak. This dish got Santiago in trouble on last week’s episode (he was trying for smoky flavors and the judges thought he should have used the wood-fired grill to better impart smoke). Having had time to consider this composition, Santiago really permeates the meat with notes of smoke and tobacco. He deep fried it, but did it so quickly the meat came out closer to rare than the well-done one might expect from an oil bath.

It’s always satisfying to be able to tinker with an idea until you get it right. Santiago will be cooking versions of the dishes he makes on the show weekly. We’ll see how he—and Kevin Gillespie and Eli Kirshtein—perform on Episode Two tonight at 10 p.m.

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