Melanie had dropped by Mr. Pollo on Mission at 24th to check out the offerings of their Venezuelan chef, and noticed that he was offering a chef's tasting menu, prix fixe for $19.95. She rounded up a bunch of folks, including some visiting chowhounds, and the eight of us pushed together three two-tops, leaving one other table and two counter seats. Yes, it's a hole in the wall.
But it's a hole in the wall with a talented, passionate chef. How many Mission dives have a chef, not just a cook? How many have a chef who has cooked in top restaurants around San Francisco and across the country? How many have a chef who says that what he wanted to do was get rid of the menus and ask people what they wanted to eat and how much they wanted to pay, and he would cook for them? What other chef is offering a tasting menu for which he also does all the prep, serving and dishwashing?
This chef would be Manny Torres Gimenez, from Venezuela, and for our dinner he served:
An amuse bouche Venezuelan-style "stuffed" arepa: a silver-dollar-sized disk of white cornmeal, split and sandwiched with a slice of kiwi. The crisp browned crust on the outside of the arepa and the creamy interior were a surprisingly delicious contrast with the cool, sweet-tangy kiwi.
Next, a Colombian-style arepa: a corn aroma arose from a bigger disk, more deeply browned on the outside and oozing with cheese. A bit of sugarcane had caused the caramelization on the outside and brought out the corn flavor.
The arepa trio concluded with Venezuela chachapas: disks of crispy browned pureed fresh yellow corn folded around melting cheese.
From arepas we transitioned to their cousin, the empanada. This was a Colombian version, a crisp halfmoon-shaped anchiote-tinted cornmeal pasty filled with a smooth chicken-potato mixture. The filling was fairly bland on its own, but came with aji, a dipping sauce made of chopped green onions, vinegar, cilantro, etc.
Finally, the main course: a duo of braised lamb on a bed of anchiote rice and a grilled baby goat rib. This came plated with a dollop of a complex sauce that included jasmine and lavender flowers and other herbs. The lamb, based on a dish his grandmother taught him, was tender and deliciously simple. The goat rib was perfectly cooked medium rare, with crispy fat along the bone, and was surprisingly mild. Chef Gimenez said it comes from Australia.
As we were wrapping up, the chef told us he would be happy to put together a dinner based around dishes or ingredients of our choice, or a menu of dishes paired to chosen wines. Reservations are not required, but given the size of the restaurant and the fact that it's a one-man operation since Chef Gimenez recently took over sole proprietorship, strongly recommended.
He told us this was the first Sunday he'd been open and that from now on he would be open seven days a week.
2823 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110