[ review ]
Somewhere, Jose Garces is smiling. His empire is such now that it's a major incubator of local culinary talent. His kids are growing up, moving out, moving on. Then again, maybe he's not smiling — losing Tim Spinner, the former Distrito chef who just opened Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, had to smart — but he's probably got a little proud-papa twinkle in his eye.
"Jose understood I had this drive and entrepreneurial spirit," says Spinner, who'd been with Garces since the El Vez days. "Ultimately, it was all guts, no glory." Now, Spinner has both, and he and partner Brian Sirhal (Distrito's former beverage manager) have traded one 100-hour work week for another. "But now, we're putting it into our own business."
Spinner sounds happy. No wonder he and Sirhal, friends since attending West Windsor-Plainsboro High outside Princeton, named this place of their own Cantina Feliz.
It's in the old Alison Two space, which sits at the intersection of GPS and Required, and from the outside, looks like a funeral parlor. Fortunately, this somber stucco manse hides plenty of life. Spinner and Sirhal stripped the restaurant of its blue velour jumpsuit, broke out a wall, shuffled the service stations and brightened up the space with help from Elisabeth Knapp, the designer who worked on Zahav and Percy Street Barbecue.
On a Friday, conversation ricocheted like racquetballs off the hot-pink walls and coffered topaz ceiling. All 27 stools appeared occupied in the bar, where five thirst-slaking types of margarita assuaged NCAA upsets. Even South Philly artist Alison Dilworth's Dia de los Muertos skeletons were having fun, making mischief on a vibrant mural that runs 13 feet along Feliz's foyer.
Creative, quirky ceviches echoed this verve. One ceramic bowl cradled faceted hamachi cubes in a coconut-milk bath flamed with habañero, topped with coconut sorbet and bejeweled with ruby pomegranate seeds that wooed me with their rock-candy crunch. Petals of hiramasa and kiwi starred in another, greened with jalapeño, chives, lime sorbet and a two-ways-slick Galia-melon vinaigrette. Spinner says the latter ceviche is a best-seller, but I'd have a helluva time selecting a favorite. Both bewitched, not to mention resonated with a welcome spice that refused to back down.
But would I drive to Montgomery County to eat them again? That's the real question for city dwellers.
I'd hesitate, but only because my anger-management counselor says it's not good for me to be around suburban drivers. In fact, on the ride home, a hubcap from a car in front of me shot off and went whirring down 76 like the blade of a circular saw and a lug nut flew under my car, clanging about like a pinball in the pipes of a church organ. Nobody died, though I haven't gotten the driver's address yet.
But I digress. Targeting the suburbs — Conshy and Manayunk were also explored — was a smart move for Spinner and Sirhal. We already have something like Cantina Feliz in Philly; it's called Distrito.
From the crab guac and served-as-separates Paloma (bottle of Mexican grapefruit soda, shot of Jimador Blanco, glass of ice) to the menu design and sorbet-topped ceviches, there are many similarities. But then again, why wouldn't there be? In a way, Distrito was as much Spinner's restaurant as Garces'.
There were signs we were in the 'burbs: a Little Amigos menu I'm sure parents appreciate; how Feliz, alive when we arrived, was empty by 10; and the prices. Dinner for four with drinks and tip came to only $50 a person, more than enough savings to offset the turnpike toll.
The black bass is one of the pricier entrées at $24.95, but featured a generous fillet marinated in garlic and parsley, perfectly grilled and draped over über-buttery Carolina rice fortified with poblano peppers, crab and corn — the richest seafood dish this side of crab au gratin. You wouldn't guess the carnitas tacos would be lighter, and yet the trio of warm, housemade corn tortillas seemed to hover above their plate like air hockey pucks. On top: heaps of shredded pork butt Spinner brines, then confits for three hours in lard, orange juice, Coke and evaporated milk. Quite the mix, but the pork turned out impossibly tender, flecked with shards of crisp skin; the tacos leaked juices that splashed on the table into thyme-and-allspice-scented Rorschachs.
I missed the crisp skin in the chicken mole; cooked sous vide, the bird was moist under its flabby exterior, but Spinner killed it on the sauce, a hypnotic, fragrant flow of puréed chilies, chocolate, fruits, nuts and spices — warming Mexican cinnamon really muscled through — developed over a two-plus-hours simmer. More chicken found a home in an overloaded tortilla soup, while yogurt dressing, musky with honey, gave a lightweight chopped salad some gravitas. Octopus, poached in pickling-spiced red wine, sliced into coins and seared on the plancha, arrived with jalapeño and silken potato purée for a cool riff on a classic pairing. Sweet, meaty razor clams smiled from a snappy guajillo/tequila broth, a special that truly was.
Slice by amber slice, we devoured the stained-glass window of bruléed bananas off the top of the tres leches, but left the clunky cake. A dim-witted apple/guava tart had less redeeming qualities, its ungainly oatmeal streusel topping clearly lost on its way to a Fourth of July barbecue. But pastry chef Meg Christiansen, who taught Spinner at the Restaurant School, flexed her skills in the ice cream and sorbet arenas, spinning refreshing tropicals (passion fruit, kiwi, coconut-lime) and singular chocolate and vanilla. I don't know if they'd make Garces smile, but they sure made us.
Cantina Feliz | 424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, 215-646-1320, cantinafeliz.com, twitter.com/cantinafeliz. Lunch served Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner served Sun.-Thu. 4-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-10 p.m. Appetizers, $5.95-$13.95; entrées, $9.95-$25.95; desserts, $4.75 -$6.50.