By Melissa Groth
All right, I have to start giving Ballston more credit. With SER, the latest addition to the restaurant scene and winner of the Ballston Business Improvement District Restaurant Challenge, the chain-populated town is becoming a destination.
The interior of SER (Spanish for “to be,” and the restaurant’s acronym for “Simple, Easy, Real”) exemplifies the theme of “casual luxury.” Yellow daisies in glass vases top homey wooden tables. Turquoise water tumblers are reminiscent of the Spanish sea. Lux tufted yellow leather seat backs balance out the casual elements with a touch of elegance. The front of the restaurant is a wall of windows for sun to stream in during the daytime. At night, candle lit tables, hanging lights and lanterns, and a “SER” marquee of tiny light bulbs transform the space into a night under stars on the Spanish coast.
Area Spanish restaurants focus on tapas cuisine, and while there will be an element of that at SER, their goal is a more immersive, authentic culinary experience of traditional Spanish family style meals. SER opens to the public on March 2nd.
Jamon de Pata Negra (cured Iberico ham) will make you forget about prosciutto. The ham is thinly sliced, fresh off the leg, and served with tiny breadsticks. Before they become delicious cured food, the pigs are fed a diet of acorns. This results in a fantastic nutty, earthy flavor. Paired with a “Welcome Mr. Marshal” sherry cocktail, the saltiness of the ham is balanced by the sweet. Feel free to go back and forth between salty and sweet for the rest of the night with this “tentempies” and cocktail. I did.
The Pan Catalana is similar to bruschetta. Crushed tomatoes, olive oil and garlic served on bread with a good crunch. Simple, but so good and so fresh, like Chef Josu Zubikarai just picked the tomatoes from the garden.
The Croquetas are tasty fried morsels, but they will fill you up quick so pace yourself. SER offers three varieties: chicken and ham, spinach, and codfish. The chicken and ham and spinach options are very dense, and I found the codfish to be lighter, relatively speaking. All are delicious, but the codfish croqueta, a Spanish specialty, is my favorite.
Of course, a restaurant reminiscent of the sea and based on a culture of coastal cuisine has high standards for seafood. This shows at their raw bar. The oysters are delicious just by themselves, or topped with gazpacho granizado and julienned green apples. Octopus Picadillo is a sort of ceviche-esque dish. The octopus is drizzled with olive oil and served with crunchy bell pepper and onion, complementing its chewy texture perfectly. The taste is fresh, clean, simple, amazing.
A unique offering of SER’s raw bar is what are called gooseneck barnacles. A fellow patron asked me what I thought those might be before they were brought out. “I guess they’re the things that grow on the sides of ships.” Not true, well, potentially true. They are actually beautiful little crustaceans with a shell that looks like a baroque shark’s tooth. The meat of the barnacle is encased in a thin covering. It takes some maneuvering, but with a deft hand you separate the shell from the covering and inside is a salty, chewy bite of the sea. And just like that, you have a strange new undeniable craving gnawing at you whenever you don’t have your gooseneck barnacles.
The codfish makes a return later in the evening in the Kokotxas, a traditional “stew” of salted codfish jowl and peas. Codfish jowls are cooked with olive oil, and then left to emulsify into this velvety gelatinous stew. Legend has it, the dish was invented by fishermen who left the codfish jowls in the olive oil in the kitchen while they went out to catch fish. When they returned they discovered a finished meal, with no chef in sight but the rocking of the boat on the sea. Too salty for my taste, but the story and the tradition surrounding this dish make it a culinary experience to be had.
Roasted suckling pig is another sensational item on the menu. Ripped from the teet at which it suckled and delivered to your tableside, the skin is crispy and buttery and delicious, and the meat is tender and flavorful. With this hunk of heaven on your plate, you’d think nothing else mattered, but don’t miss the Navarra potatoes served alongside; they are the only potatoes I’ve ever loved.
I had to take a moment of silence at dessert. The pineapple crujiete, or as we fondly referred to it, “pineapple pizza,” rendered me speechless. Pineapple served on puff pastry with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sounds simple enough, right? But it will blow you away. Another great dessert option is the arroz con leche: a light, simple lemony-cinnamony rice pudding that will satisfy a subtle sweet tooth and cleanse the palate.
People say the best way to experience a culture is through the food. Who knew a trip to Spain was as easy as a taking the Metro to Ballston?