Recently, while perusing the shelves at the PLCB store on Chestnut near 12th Street, one of the clerks I know approached me, leaned in secretively and quietly asked: “Do you like sherry?” “Of course,” I said.
And with that, he revealed a bottle of El Maestro Sierra Amontillado 12-year-old sherry. Unlike the sweet, syrupy flavors typically associated with sherry, this offering was different, carrying the notes of toasted almonds and seawater that characterize Amontillado-style sherry.
“If I were you, I’d buy this now,” he said. “Because when the folks at Jamonera find out it’s in, they’ll take it all.”
Jamonera is the latest addition to chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s ever-growing empire, which includes the Mediterranean mecca Barbuzzo. Inspired by culinary tours through Madrid, Barcelona and Andalucia, Turney and Safran decided to rework their underappreciated modern Indian spot, Bindi, into a tapas bar.
At first glance, swapping a unique Indian restaurant for yet another tapas joint may not seem like progress for Turney and Safran or, for that matter, Philadelphia. But Jamonera possesses a distinct identity that elevates the Philly dining scene.
Take Jamonera’s sherry program. “When we were sipping manzanilla and eating seafood in Sanlucar, I thought, ‘No one is doing this in Philly!’” says Turney. “Sherry? Not happening in Philly.”
It is now. The list on which that El Maestro Sierra Amontillado appears, engineered by manager Terence Lewis, is staggeringly deep — 44 different sherries spanning 10 styles, from the light, bracing salinity of finos to the unctuous, stewed-figiness of Pedro Ximénez. Without the counsel of Jamonera’s well-informed staff, such depth would be overwhelming. Engage the staff, however, and soon you may gain the confidence to start your own sherry bodega.
Turney’s menu stems from her experiences dining and traveling through Spain, and that personal touch shines through. Traditional plates often get a small twist. Eggplant is soaked in water and dusted in rice flour to give the berenjenas (eggplant fries) the crunch that was missed in Sevilla. Although they added textural contrast, the English-pea and goat-cheese croquettes seemed out of place next to seared sea scallops. But a visual upgrade to the pan con tomate — a cluster of small tomatoes still on the vine atop roasted tomatoes on toasted Metropolitan bread — was striking.
Turney knows when to let traditional plates speak in their native tongue. The tang of blistered shishito peppers needs nothing more than a dry fino sherry accompaniment. And hand-cut, acorn-fed Fermin jamon Ibérico de bellotta needs no help melting blissfully on your tongue.
It’s satisfying, though, to see Turney push creative twists to the edge without compromising authenticity. Mussels escabeche are served in a sardine can, just as she enjoyed the dish in Spain. The crunch of radish and cucumber and the freshness of jicama leaves would be enough to distinguish her version. But the edible “shells” of roasted-garlic potato tuiles make it truly special. Calamari fried in its own ink was new to Turney when she saw it in Spain. Turney won’t reveal her method for creating tender pieces of calamari cocooned in a hauntingly black, crunchy shell.
On occasion, Turney deviates from authenticity. The buttery Castelvetrano olives (a Barbuzzo staple) that adorn the grilled octopus and the tender pan-seared skate are Italian, not Spanish. “I know they’re Italian. I use them in everything,” Turney laughs. “I can do what I want!”
The kitchen deserves props for its house-made sausage. For the clams with chorizo, a mix of pork shoulder and pork fat are smoked, formed into a loose chorizo, then added to a stew of white beans, clams and almond picada.
An ever-changing menu keeps the chefs inspired to create new dishes. Such flexibility is invaluable when it comes to keeping an open mind to improve existing plates. On an early visit, the warm medjool dates stuffed with rich Valdeón blue cheese and wrapped in serrano ham were overwhelmingly sweet. Now the kitchen plumps up the dates in sherry vinegar and swaps in smoked bacon for the serrano, giving the dish more balance.
This philosophy, however, cuts both ways as favorites can change or vanish entirely. The crispy pig-tail tosta was hands down the best rendition of pig tails in the city. Fatty pig tails are braised for two hours, deboned, crisped on the plancha, topped with bright pickled cabbage and a tangy piparade barbecue sauce and served on top of toasted bread for that necessary crunch. That crunch was sorely missed when the toast was replaced with soft brioche in a later version. The latest rendition — the roasted pork coca — could be the best. Although it features roasted pork shoulder in lieu of pig tail, the dish has the same deep, savory flavor. But what sealed it was ditching the brioche for toasted flatbread, which lends just the right resistance.
I swear Turney is trying to corner the market on jarred desserts. The Jamonera sundae is served in a Weck jar packed with decadence: peanut-turron ice cream; a spicy espelette brownie; hot fudge; roasted-vanilla-bean marshmallow; and a Spanish peanut-pretzel praline. While the Rosé Cava sorbet didn’t display the Rosé Cava flavor I hoped for, the buñuelos were a winner. These warm doughnuts come with a devilish sauce that includes dulce de leche spiked with espresso.
There is no dessert at Jamonera that incorporates those Italian olives. But if there were, I wouldn’t complain. With personal dishes that are successful as these, I’m more than happy letting Turney do what she wants.
105 S. 13th St., 215-922-6061, jamonerarestaurant.com. Dinner served Sun.-Thu., 5-11:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.–midnight. For the table, $3-$6; tapas, $7-$8; salads and vegetables, $6-$9; cured meats and cheese, $14-$22; toasts and small sandwiches, $7-$9; raciones, $10-$17; desserts, $6-$10.