In Pursuit of Perfection
Recently I went to Alcala hoping to get some recipes and tips from the chef and owner, Jesus Martinez. He let me into the kitchen all right, but swore me to secrecy. I wish I could tell you how he makes those delectable, swoon-worthy Gambas al Ajillo, but then he’d never let me into his restaurant ever again.
“Now you can open your own successful restaurant,” he told me.
What I can say is, the ingredients in the majority of his dishes hardly ever number more than four or five, and half of them are extra virgin olive oil and garlic. Over the years he has experimented with tools and techniques to perfect his dishes. Once he achieved the best version possible, he worked to make them as quickly as possible.
Martinez is a whirlwind—but all economical, deft gestures—and it takes him what seems but seconds to whip up several dishes at once. Seeing him in action is one thing; replicating his Bruce Lee moves in the kitchen is another. I don’t think I’ll be opening a restaurant and following his lead anytime soon.
In any case, diplomats and dignitaries are regulars here. The restaurant is intimate and elegant, with its oil paintings and dark wood screens. Alcala provides an instant wormhole to Spain, to that fine hour when it is imperative to drop everything you’re doing and catch up with friends over tapas and wine.
There are a number of traditional dishes at Alcala, but over the years, Martinez has made them all his own. There are the classic, sizzling Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp with garlic, $12). Just those alone warrant a visit. Their floating aroma just lifted me out of my seat. Once the shrimp are devoured, the sauce is the thing to attack. Bread is your weapon. It’s OK to shamelessly sop it up. Not a single drop should go to waste.
Another wonderful dish consists of thin slices of octopus over mashed potatoes, with the ubiquitous fragrant olive oil drizzled over. It all literally melts in your mouth, while the olive oil carries the wonderful flavors throughout.
Martinez takes no time at all to whip up some grilled specialties. (I’d say maybe there was a wormhole in his kitchen too, if I hadn’t been there.) So much of what he touches in those few seconds turns to beautiful aromas full of promise. Grilled lamb chops yield up their tender, succulent flavors ($18). Grilled calamari is dressed lightly, in a super-secret (of course!) subtle green sauce that just about completes the dish.
Hang around long enough (and you should, nursing a glass or two of wine along with your tapas) and Martinez might regale you with stories. You don’t have to spend too much time with him to realize he’s not quite your run-of-the-mill chef, or person, for that matter.
Sleep is overrated in his book, as it tends to be for many chefs, granted. After the dinner shift, he heads to the fish market around 2 a.m. He sleeps a couple of hours a day, but prefers instead to meditate. It recharges him and connects him to the larger universe. He could not imagine a day without it.
He was a young athlete still in school when he realized he could harness the power of his mind to perform faster, better. Martinez has been single-minded about incessant improvement, whether that’s in the kitchen or in life.
Our talk turns toward family and relationships. Martinez has been married for many years (to a “tough woman” he said. “Not happy if you’re right—’Why do you have to be right?—not happy if you’re wrong.”), but it has endured well. He tells me the secret of a long marriage (this should make up for no recipe).
“The secret to a long marriage is, you have to study the other person. What makes them peaceful, what makes them happy,” he said.
There are surely other secrets waiting to be uncovered at Alcala. But you’ll have to go to find out.
246 E. 44th St.
Monday–Thursday noon–11 p.m.
Saturday 3:30 p.m.–midnight
Sunday 5 p.m.–9:30 p.m.