It may come as no surprise that the Spanish world of competitive ham-slicing has long been a manly art. At least it was until last spring, when Lourdes Corbacho became the first woman cortador to ever be crowned Spain's national ham-cutting champ.
If the platter laden with Iberico de Bellota ham set before me recently at Jamonera was any indication, its papered wooden board covered with a cured-pig mosaic of crimson ham chips laced with creamy fat, Corbacho's influence has made its way to Philly in the best way.
Her clean swipe through the jamón ceiling was the beacon of inspiration that drew chef Marcie Turney and her partner, Valerie Safran, to Corbacho's family store in the Andalusian town of Ronda — La Casa de Jamón — during their reconnaissance tour of Spain last year in preparation for Jamonera, the latest addition to their empire of eateries and shops around 13th and Sansom Streets. They made gazpacho in Sevilla. They sipped Perucchi Spanish vermouth over giant ice cubes in Madrid. They ate crispy rice dishes in Huelva, where they also stood by the road and playfully threw acorns at the famously acorn-craving Jabugo pigs. And from Corbacho's store, they bought a jamón and the viselike ham stand made of walnut wood called, not coincidentally, a jamonera. It sits now like a talisman in the corner of their restaurant, an intimate, votive-lit 35-seater with Rioja-colored accents, carved wooden chandeliers, a long copper-topped bar, soft leather banquettes, and enough sherry to wash away any curried memories of Bindi, their now-closed Indian venture.
Philly's small but ambitious tapas scene has to date been dominated by men, too, and one hombre, in particular: the ubiquitous Jose Garces. But these women have brought a distinctive luster of their own, infused with the infectious energy of their successes across the street at Barbuzzo and Lolita, Safran's eye for design details, and Turney's talent for melding rustic flavors with her own creative and seasonal touches.
Turney has her own ham-slicing technique down, too, sawing strips with a long thin knife that have deliberately ragged edges and offer a bit more chew than the demurely paper-thin machine-sliced ham you're more likely to see around Philly. The flavor has more gusto, too, with a deep and lingering richness that really tastes like butter and nuts (acorns? ¡Sí!). Turney is at her best when she lets such great ingredients shine. And that ham, pricey but generously portioned, makes cameos throughout the many small plates on Jamonera's menu. It comes ribboned in the crispy calasparra rice with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and smoked St. Simon cheese. It comes hidden in the "judias verdes" like a meaty surprise, tucked beneath a spring tangle of pea tendrils, fava beans, crunchy torn-bread croutons, and creamy sheep's milk ricotta touched with lemon and mint.
She works similar wonders with ingredients as humble as the potato — fried in rough chunks to a shattering crisp, then drizzled with smoked garlic aioli and sunspots of her own sherry vinegar hot sauce. Slender shishito peppers, blistered with plancha heat, need just arbequina olive oil and lemon zest to become irresistible, their delicate green skins more fruity than hot. Anchovies, both silvery and black-skinned, take a starring turn in the "anchoa wedding," draped side-by-side over griddled bread with ramps, as well as toast rubbed with garlic and tomatoes for the "pan con tomate." Large and meaty flakes of fine Spanish tuna tumble with refreshing celery and radish salad in sherry vinaigrette. Even the citrus-marinated olives here gain a notch of intensity from a light roast that shrivels the skins and concentrates flavors.
Turney's most stunning dishes, though, are dressed in squid-ink black. The calamari marinate in ink before getting crisped and are so ebony they look to have been fried in a volcano. But they're delicate and tender, with a smoky wisp of pimenton Spanish paprika, a squirt of lemon, and garlic chips. With the mussels escabeche, whose vermouth-marinated mollusks are cleverly in a sardine can, squid ink completes the ingenious trompe l'oeil garnish of faux mussel shells molded and baked around actual shells with a potato-garlic tuile dough.
Such sleights of culinary wit are exactly what Turney needs to begin to distinguish her voice in tapas, and begin adding to the dialogue that has long been defined locally by Garces' sublimely refined small plates. Jamonera's dishes tend to be a shade larger than small. But mostly, the menu is at risk of being too broad, with a few dishes that were less convincing.
Turney occasionally reverts to an old habit of overloading plates — like the oyster sliders piled with so much sauce and frisee greens they become mushy; or the octopus, which got lost in the mayo-creaminess of an ill-advised aioli; or even the pigtails, served as indistinguishable shreds of tender meat on toast beneath a mop of cabbage and more aioli. The gambas al ajillo and potato-mashed salt cod were, individually, two strong flavors. Stacked together in the same cazuela, they were a mistake. And there are too many other Spanish flavors yet to explore for Turney's occasional off-route detours to maple-buttered toast topped with mushrooms and foie gras (Allô, Montréal?) or meguez with lentils and yogurt (Hello, Morocco!).
And yet, the reach, ambition, and overall execution here already are compelling enough that those details can be easily tweaked as Jamonera continues grow. Terence Lewis has certainly come into his own as one of Philly's most interesting beverage directors, with a fairly priced focus on small-production Spanish wines and, especially, his quirky passion for the underappreciated world of sherries, with a list of 46, and growing, that is among the largest in the nation. Servers such as Rachael Barclay, meanwhile, do a very impressive job of communicating both the intricacies of those drinks and every detail of Turney's food.
And ultimately, it is Turney's cooking — ever enthusiastic, whether she's embracing Mexican, Italian, or even Indian — that is the main attraction. And while I think she's only beginning to find her Spanish groove, there are already so many bold flavors here to love, from the swirl of toasted fideo noodles with Manzanilla-steamed Manila clams and sepia topped with Marcona almonds and parsley, to the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with oozy Valdeon cheese, to the crock of slow-braised short rib "de Lucio" stew with chorizo and a fried egg, to some beautifully grilled scallops, served beneath melting pats of sea-sweet uni butter over fork-mashed fava beans and mint with chunks of melty braised pork belly.
Of course, it all comes back to pig in a restaurant called Jamonera. Though with desserts, Turney and pastry chef Caitlin Howington deftly use other savory flavors for their sweet tricks: a smoked Mahon cheese ice cream for the honey-soaked fig cake; espelette chile brownies and salty pretzel praline for the sundae; a dusting of coffee sugar for the deep-fried pillows of buñuelo fritters; candied pistachios for the citrusy crema Catalan, and a sweet olive oil ice cream that reminds you vividly that the olive is a fruit.
In Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran's nuevo tapas world, anything is possible.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Nomad Pizza in Bella Vista. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter at @CraigLaBan.