Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon: Aioli Bodega Espagnola

Tapas are meant to be a communal cuisine, eaten with sangria and beer, in the company of friends. However, they are no less pleasurable when dining alone. While in Sacramento for Foodista's International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC) last month, I went off the grid one afternoon and enjoyed a memorable lunch at Aioli Bodega Espagnola on L Street.

I had noticed Aioli the day before when I visited Capital City Beads across the street, but wanted to explore all my options  before settling on the place for my solitary repast. I was anticipating the big "Farm-to-Fork" Feast at IFBC that evening, and wanted to experience a restaurant that was more off the beaten path of IFBC.

Aioli is located in an area of midtown Sacramento called the Handle District, named for its resemblance to San Francisco's Panhandle, a park that connects Golden Gate Park to some hip neighborhoods like Hayes Valley and Haight-Ashbury. Like the Panhandle, the Handle District looks like the handle of a cooking vessel, more of a deep pot than a frying pan.

Fittingly, the Handle District is home to a number of restaurants, wine bars, and coffeehouses. With its quaint yellow awnings, Aioli has graced L Street for 22 years. It seemed like just the sort of place that I prize whether at home or away: a place that locals can enjoy in peace while visitors from out-of-town marvel at its excellent food and low-key atmosphere.

Walking into the restaurant's nearly empty back patio was like being the first one to arrive at a party - indeed, the space looked like someone's backyard. Two women were seated at what appeared to be their regular table; otherwise, I had the patio to myself. I could picture it eventually filling with diners, but reveled in the quiet serenity of the moment. I chose a table partially shaded by trees and a large mosaic-embellished fireplace and sat down, breathing in the sunlit green of the trees and the blissful stillness.

Mediterranean food - especially tapas - holds an eternal quality that I can't easily explain. We've fetishized foods like pizza, olive oil, and spanakopita to the point of caricature. But Spanish bodega fare is relatively unsullied by the American tendency to oversimplify ethnic cuisines into an "It's a Small World" shadow of their true selves.

At Aioli, this is particularly true. While undisputed Spanish classics like paella Valenciana and flan are featured on the menu, the real genius lies in dishes that reflect Spain's multicultural heritage. The menu included viera en jengimbre (scallops with an orange-ginger sauce), gravlax, and pasta al Amatriciana, dishes that I wouldn't ordinarily expect at a Spanish restaurant.

Erin Ergenbright's essay, "Table for One" describes eating alone as "an uncomfortable intersection between the public and the private." I have gained the sense over the years, that food servers are a little embarrassed by and for the lone female diner, in addition to sometimes being downright inhospitable. When my server does not resort to the latter behavior, I am either treated with sexless deference by the male servers, or the obsequious pity reserved for maiden aunts and absentminded grandmothers by the female servers.

My server that day did neither of these. He was businesslike but cordial, if such a combination exists. He graciously answered my questions about soy allergens (so far, Spanish food is happily devoid of such) and even cautioned me against ordering too much food when I began to request half a page of menu items. 
When he began to bring my meal to the table, I understood why.

I started with a small dish of creamy aioli made with white beans and garlic. Despite the popular misunderstanding of aioli as a sort of mayonnais-y sandwich spread, this dreamy dip was more like a thinner and creamy hummus. The best thing about dining alone is that you can double-dip, which I did with tiny discs of a yeasty and hearty baguette. A bowl of tiny olives gleamed at me like oily, earthy jewels. The fact that they still contained their pits was a reminder to take my time and added to my enjoyment of this leisurely meal.

I was trying to keep from polishing off all the bread and aioli when my food server showed up with my entree of pincho morunos de cordero - skewers of tender grilled, marinated lamb in a red wine sauce. An unexpected blend of red peppers and mint honored both Spain's Moorish heritage and the complexity of the lamb. The languid gaminess of the meat was just right with the spices that lingered on my palate.

The dappled shade over my table was subsiding with the intensity of the afternoon sun. A few more diners had joined me on the patio - all older women. One of them was alone at a table in front of me, facing the restaurant and calmly drinking a glass of sangria. Five other ladies arrived and seated themselves at a table at the rear of the patio and I tried to guess if they were a book club, former classmates, or members of a family.

I probably think too much about this, but I am still pretty self-conscious about eating alone in public. As women, we are brought up to be more communal and lone females have culturally been considered suspect. I sat there hoping that one day I would be as self-possessed with dining alone as the lady with the sangria seemed to be, and realized that at least for that afternoon, I was.

That being said, I did end up going indoors for my dessert as the legendary Sacramento heat was beginning to assert itself even more. I ordered pera "Aioli" - a pear braised in red wine and spices for dessert with a cup of coffee. I let the food server know that I would be moving inside and seated myself at the empty bar - at least I thought it was empty.

A man in a white linen shirt was sitting at a far corner of the bar, eating a steak that covered two-thirds of the plate. He was bald, in an appealing Jean-Luc Picard sort of way and wore fashionably framed glasses. I decided that he must have been the owner, judging from the hurried way he ate his lunch while still exuding a presence that said he was still in charge.

After a few minutes of polite silence, I finally asked him if he was the owner and when he confirmed this, I told him how much I was enjoying Aioli. I told him I was in Sacramento for IFBC and began to ask him questions about Aioli's menu, much of which comes from his native region of Andalusia.

Reda Bellarbi described tapas as "not a meal," as we seem to have interpreted it here in the U.S., but food that you drink with. Each tapas bar is known for a particular specialty; these small plates were free, and customers paid for their beverages.

We chatted about how nobody "owns" any one ingredient. It is important to remember that foods that are typically identified with a particular culture - tomatoes with Italian food, raw fish with Japanese food, or corn with Mexican food, to name a few - are shared by more than one group. Bellarbi told me that without the discoveries of the New World (which is now approximately 400 years old), the Mediterranean diet would  have continued to consist of cabbage, artichokes, olives, and wheat.

My dessert arrived and I chatted for a while longer with Bellarbi when the demands of running a restaurant broke the mutual reverie of food, history, and the art of living simply but well. Bellarbi had somehow managed to eat the huge steak without spattering his white shirt and while having a conversation. He excused himself and began to tend the host station while his two food servers covered the now bustling restaurant. As I was leaving, I admired a huge bronze statue of a member of the Guardia Civil, the oldest law enforcement agency in Spain, dating back to the mid-1800s. Bellarbi proudly explained its history to me and posed next to the towering sculpture.

I left Aioli feeling rather full, but refreshed. I took my time walking back to the conference hotel, and stopped at Old Soul Co. and bought a brownie and a lemonade to save for that late afternoon sugar crash. I attended a session on writing about culinary travel writing led by bloggers Amy Sherman (Cooking with Amy), Jessica Van Dop DeJesus (The Dining Traveler), and Jennifer Sweeney, director of public relations for Visit California.

The Farm-to-Fork Feast took place after this last session of the day, in a shady walkway between the Hyatt Regency and the Community Center Theater. The dinner for about 200 was prepared by Chef Jason Poole from Dawson's, the Hyatt's AAA Four Diamond restaurant. I enjoyed a salad of the freshest arugula I have ever tasted and an alternative vegetable entree, as the free-range chicken entree contained soy. This appeared to be a fancy succotash, topped with zucchini strips and surrounded by potatoes.

I chatted with my tablemates about the vagaries of foodie destinations and enjoyed the fashion show of the sari-clad fans of Gurdas Maan, a Punjabi singer and actor, who were streaming into the theater next door with their dates, children, and even grandparents. We commented on the multigenerational reach of music and the tolerance of a culture that appeared to think nothing of partying with its elders. We talked about how Denver is a comer as a culinary destination, and how Hawaii has been totally overlooked as a foodie haven, with its wealth of diverse ethnic cuisines and exotic bounty of ingredients.

Mostly, I took in the space - the enormous expanse of white tablecloths, the rustic flower arrangements that included of all things, ears of corn; and the delicious aromas that emanated from the wine and the meal as food servers tended to our party of nearly 200 guests. While the Farm-to-Fork dinner stood in sharp contrast to the tranquil setting of my lunch at Aioli, I still moved in that calm space for days afterward.

Whenever I am in a city other than L.A., the first thing I notice is how nowhere else is as crowded. Our traffic is epic, our disregard for other human beings in the struggle to do the day-to-day things has come to tragic proportions. I think this is why I blog about food - the preparation of it takes some level of concentration and while the consumption of it on the part of the diner does not require a lot of thought, in the right environment, the enjoyment of food can be rejuvenating and transforming.

The most valuable souvenir I brought home from IFBC was a sense of well-being that comes not only from good food but from enjoying it in a setting where it feels like one has room to breathe. We all need community and companionship. But we also need to be able to hear our own thoughts in order to share them with others and to appreciate theirs.

I think this is why I write about food. The need for it is a common thread that connects us all, and the love of it - its history, preparations, artistry, and the pride that those who grow or create it have - can bring out the best in celebrating humanity. It was wonderful to explore this further at IFBC in Sacramento, where despite the creativity and opportunity that flourishes in the food community, there is still room to grow and breathe.

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