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We were sitting at one of two outside tables at Bar Pilar, a coveted spot that my boyfriend and I considered ourselves lucky to land. Then we saw a friend down walking down 14th Street and, despite the limited seating, welcomed her to join us. It was a Monday. And we were not on a date. But she felt bad, so instead of sitting on the remaining plastic seat, she wedged herself in a flower bed.
We ordered a few plates to share: the peas and house-made ricotta, tri-meat meatballs and Pilar’s popular fried chicken with whipped potatoes.
The peas arrived first. And that’s when I knew our unexpected guest had became a fixture of our table. We unrolled a napkin, handed her a fork and she dug right in. The shiny, lime-colored beads brought forth a snap, complementing the creamy pudding of cheese.
Both English and snow peas are simply blanched, then tossed with lemon juice and Arbequina oil, a Spanish dressing that Pilar’s chef, Justin Bittner, describes as “really light and fruity with no bitter aftertaste and not to peppery.”
When we spoke on the phone a few days after my meal, Bittner wanted to know why I chose that particular dish to write about. “I like cheese,” I tell him, plus I wanted to get my vegetable fill, as well. He politely asks if I could please write about something else, which I decline and ask why.
“I kind of borrowed this dish from another restaurant,” he reveals, “so I think it could be disrespectful.”
“That’s okay,” I quickly reply. “I’m sure the other restaurant would want to know you liked its dish.” You know the saying: imitation being highest form of flattery and whatnot.
At first, Bittner refuses to reveal the originator, but continues explaining his take, describing the dots of chive oil, the bouquet of pea shoots and the lemon zested-ricotta.
I ask one last time. “It was at Palena Cafe,” Bittner finally confesses. “I really like Frank Ruta‘s cooking.” The reason for recreating this particular dish: “It was really fresh and tasty,” he says.
Brings new meaning to the term “poaching” in the kitchen.
Photo by Stefanie Gans