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I've eaten so many plates of rubbery marinated octopus that I'm usually wary of ordering it, but the version here sounded fascinating: Krause serves it barbecued. He tenderizes the flesh by poaching it in court bouillon before tossing it on the grill and slathering the pieces in a delicious sauce that's sweet but vinegary. The rubber factor is blessedly low, but the dish is nowhere near delectable enough to change my mind about octopus.
On the other hand, I don't know that I could eat enough plates of Esquina's beef tenderloin, one of Krause's featured entrées. It's roasted and grilled over hickory and oak and served dripping with a creamy horseradish aioli, atop a piping-hot mound of mashers made with a Spanish cow's-milk cheese. Less satisfying is the chicken entrée — though maybe I'm just spoiled by the Sofia Vergara-sized birdbreasts served at Stroud's. The roasted breast and thigh on this plate are moist but inadequately meaty. They're accessorized by a mound of chilled Tunisian potato salad, delicately seasoned with clove and nutmeg, that's more memorable than the main course. "It plays off the tapenade we serve with it," Krause told me later. It plays to win. The salty olive bits are accented by sweet green and purple grapes and a hint of saffron, a refreshing formula.
I'm a sucker for saffron, the world's most costly spice (and a seasonal one — it's the name for the vividly orange stigma of a springtime crocus), which adds luxurious notes to Krause's paella. He whips it into a sassy, sunflower-yellow aioli for the two versions: one a steel pan loaded with prawns, shrimp, clams, mussels and chorizo; the other meatless. The former is visually impressive but, for all its oceanic ambition, lifeless. I needed an extra order of that aromatic aioli to find the flavor, even in the chorizo.
Its meatless twin, though, might be the best vegetarian paella I've ever tasted. The saffron rice is thick with mushrooms, onions, peas, peppers and braised fennel. Vegetarians are generally well-served at Esquina. I love the potato-and-egg casserole — prepared with local mushrooms — that Krause calls simply a tortilla. And the kitchen crew can prepare the huevos rotas without the serrano ham.
The dessert selection is modest but inventive. "People love the two textures of the cinnamon panna cotta," server Amanda said. "It's topped with an icy pear granita." What came out of the kitchen was a wineglass filled with discreetly spiced eggless custard, blanketed with gratuitous shards of pear-flavored ice. I scooped the fancy snow-cone shavings out of the glass and onto a bread plate before giving up in frustration. Too inventive.
Later this spring, Krause plans to add half-sized desserts to the menu, but I can't imagine anything smaller than Esquina's dense chocolate terrine, which isn't much bigger than a dental-floss dispenser. It wins on taste, though — it's a terrific finale, rich and fudgy and topped with a fluffy froth of Chantilly cream with a tiny silver pitcher of warm chocolate sauce on the side. It is but a hint of a dessert, and all the more distinct for it.
This second incarnation of Esquina is a vast improvement over its predecessor, and Krause is already thinking about the restaurant's third act.
"Sometimes I don't want to just make a menu change," he told me. "Sometimes I just want to gut the place and start over."
I'm certainly intrigued to see where Krause's restlessness takes him — and his diners — next. But let me enjoy Esquina for a little while, as it is right now.