I came back from a trip to Guatemala last week with two missions: Learn Spanish. And plant some banana trees. Even before I left the States, my future course had started to take shape — 70 percent of my neighbors are Spanish-speaking. And I'd run into a guy at Les Beans coffeehouse, one of our local environmental activists and an inveterate recycler, who'd told me that banana trees thrive on graywater (i.e., the mildly dirty sink and bathwater we usually send into our sewers).
As in a dream, these disparate threads had started to come together. By happenstance, my cold-water washing machine dumps graywater, totally illegally, into a cobbled-together sump on the side of my house that would be perfect for a mini banana plantation. And in San Marcos la Laguna, where we'd spent half our Guatemala trip, when we pulled the plug on our bathwater upstairs, it ran down the mountain-rock walls of the living room, trickled under the front door, down the stone steps, and into the thirsty banana plants growing farther below. Those plants looked healthy.
Good thing too, since an op-ed in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago predicted that a virulent fungus now spreading across the globe will wipe out, once it reaches Latin America, the familiar Cavendish banana (the one we buy in supermarkets) within the next two decades.
The fact that a single fungus could take out the world market in bananas is part of a larger trend in corporate agriculture, the tendency of agribusiness to choose one variety of tomato, pear, banana, or broccoli based solely on its ability to withstand disease and long storage. Thus, the produce we get in our grocery stores is most often thick-skinned, tough, juiceless, and flavorless. It's also likely to be genetically modified, nutritionally deficient, and laced with pesticides or other toxic elements. When scientists working to develop the ideal corporate fruit or vegetable check off a list of ideal characteristics, taste and nutritional value receive no consideration whatsoever. Journalist Thomas Pawlick illustrates this outrageous state of affairs in his recent book, The End of Food: How the Food Industry Is Destroying Our Food Supply — And What You Can Do About It. Pawlick asks us to consider a graph in which the x variable of poor nutritional quality meets the y variable of high toxicity. That point on the graph is exactly where we find ourselves in North America today every time we bite into a supermarket apple or peach.
Hideous, isn't it? But it certainly strengthens my resolve to grow as much produce as I can manage on my little suburban plot and to buy the rest of it from farmer's markets and random melon trucks. Seeing the staggering variety of fruits and vegetables growing in Guatemala, where farming still accounts for 25 percent of the GNP — the strawberries, mangoes, broccoli, cabbage, beans, corn, tomatoes — planted side by side on small farms, in backyards, along highways... well, it almost broke my heart. We don't do agriculture that way here anymore. We do monoculture — huge swaths of nothing but corn, soybeans, and wheat — most of it to feed livestock or make sweeteners for what food writer Michael Pollan calls "foodish" products. Monoculture is putting small farmers out of business and destroying our soil.
It was in this conflicted frame of mind — pissed, hopeful, nostalgic, scared, excited, and determined to go down fighting — that I found myself at Saffrón Modern Latin Bistro in Weston recently, ready to practice my few pathetic words of Spanish on a Latina waitress who clearly had no clue why I wasn't just talking American, since she spoke it perfectly. It was early in the evening and early in the week, and we were the sole customers in this lovely place, which opened last November. Our booth faced the front door; I watched a steady flow of customers coming and going at the Thai restaurant next door, a scene that must feel relentlessly disheartening for the staff at Saffrón. Not another customer appeared in the hour or so we spent over our excellent meal. The world is unjust.
Saffrón's dinner menu is a series of riffs on Latin themes. From Spain come appetizers like a tapas plate of patatas bravas con salsa alioli ($6, spuds with mayonnaise), gambas salteadas con jamón Serrano y alcochofas ($12, shrimps with Serrano ham and artichokes); from Cuba the costillitas al jerez (baby back ribs with sherry), croquetas de jamón y pollo ($6, chicken and ham turnovers), and empanaditas de carne con salsa fresca y brava ($8, little empanadas with fresh, brave sauce... er... with tomato salsa and marinara). There was also a fine special that night of seared rare tuna made with a coffee rub ($9) and small plates of ceviche, shrimp cocktail, octopus salad, a tabla rústica of sliced hams and Manchego cheese, and a soup of the day — vegetable cream — all at similarly reasonable prices.
Our appetizers arrived looking as beautiful as the décor. Guatemala has sharpened my perception of gorgeousness, and even though Saffrón is in a stupid strip mall facing a bruise-colored parking lot, inside it's all overlapping textures and gently glowing color: stone walls, iron wall sculpture, big paintings in primary colors reminiscent of early 20th-century cubist art, jewel-colored lamps, glowing woods on the wine racks and fixtures. Somebody put a lot of thought into the design here, and somebody — probably Cuban chef Yamel Gonzalez — is still putting as much into the arrangement of the plates. Tapas are delicate little bites, and they should look appetizing. My seared tuna, which had been brushed with dark coffee, was cut in perfect bite-sized squares, each of which overlapped a tiny square tortilla like a row of fallen dominoes, and it came with a side of sautéed cardinal-red julienned peppers and mushrooms. You built each bite by layering the fish, chip, and vegetables, and it came together as balanced, cool, and fruity — and lest the dish feel too annoyingly sunny, the coffee provided a dark undercurrent of chocolaty smoke, like the revelation of repressed desire.
Our mini empanadas were encased in corn meal and fried, which gave them a satisfying crunch, stuffed with spiced minced beef and chopped onion with the consistency of pot roast. These were good with both salsas — the rather sweet marinara and a lime-infused fresh tomato and onion, and there was a small fresh green salad to lighten things up.
Honestly, since both of us were recovering from stomach bugs brought on by gorging on too much Guatemalan fruit, these plates would have been enough to satisfy — they make a great small meal and yet another option for dining out in hard times. But I was glad I'd ordered the nightly entrée special, a broiled, flat-iron steak topped with grilled shrimp and served with mashed potatoes, not least for the value — it was just $14.95. And Ms. A had two fillets of mahi ($20) stuffed with cream cheese and topped with shrimp over a nest of buttery, al dente angel hair. The flat iron is a cut of beef from the shoulder, and some people say it combines the tenderness of filet mignon with the deep flavor of a rib eye. The problem is, it's got a band of connective tissue that runs through it that has to be carefully removed. If it isn't, the thing is a bitch to cut — the best you can do is sort of tear it away, and at that point you've kind of ruined the look of your steak. That's what I had to do with this one. The meat had rich flavor, and it was tender, for sure; the shrimp were tasty, and the potato straws had lots of crunch. But that strand of tissue ought to have been seen to by the kitchen.
Ms. A's mahi was excellent, white and succulent, with just enough cream cheese inside to add creaminess without overkill. There was a tart, rough tomato sauce scattered around, and everything was well-seasoned — true of my steak too.
Our waitress recommended tres leches for dessert ($7). We took it home and had it later — a velvety sponge cake with a layer of whipped cream, sticky brown dulce de leche, and a topping of sweet, runny, coconut-laced cream. It was fantastic.
We live in sad times if a restaurant this good should be scrambling for customers. Here's excellent food in surroundings that wouldn't look shabby at the chichiest joints in Antigua — and the prices are right for today's tightened belts. Vamos, amigos.