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Hamming It Up

by B.A. Nilsson on August 31, 2011

Panzur Restaurant and Wine Bar

Panzur Restaurant and Wine Bar, 69 Broadway, Tivoli, 845-757-1071, panzur.com. Serving dinner 5:30-9 Tue-Thu, 5:30-10 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Spanish-inspired modern

Entrée price range: $8 (tortilla Espanola) to $23 (New York strip)

Ambiance: artistic bistro

There’s evidence that our hungry ancestors domesticated pigs even before they began domesticating edible crops. Salting the meat began as a way to preserve and carry one’s future meals. When we invented ham, we struck gold. The curing process develops a fantastically mouth-satisfying array of flavors. And the concentration of proteins and fat made us smarter.

“If we had stayed with the fruits-and-shoots menus of the apes, we would probably have the brainpower of a gorilla,” writes Peter Kaminsky in his wonderful book Pig Perfect. “Which raises an interesting point: Will we revert to dim-wittedness if we all eat low-fat, vegetarian diets?”

Chef Rei Peraza is a pig enthusiast. His father is from Spain, his mother from Venezuela (by way of Cuba), and her father inspired the love of food that persuaded Peraza to open his offbeat, excellent eatery. “After opening a dozen places across the country, my wife and I wanted to have a restaurant that reflects the way we live our lives,” he says. “We chose this location because we wanted as little market influence as possible.”

Tivoli is the right place for it. You’re cheek-by-jowl with other individualists and not far from a college whose community offers year-round support. Peraza is a Culinary Institute graduate who also remains true to the idea of the family kitchen and insists that his menu offerings reflect what he cooks and eats at home. The restaurant, which has been open for nearly four months, is in a center-of-town building previously home to La Porcini Cucina and Café Pongo, among others, but the refurbishment, designed by Peraza’s wife, Kim, emphasizes the sunniness of the space like never before.

An impressive bar dominates the middle, with dining areas on either side. Toward the back is a table with an old-fashioned scale and a meat slicer; arrayed around them are the cuts of ham being featured. Careful slicing is an issue—some of the more exotic meats are astonishingly pricey. The choices during my recent visit were three: jamon de pato ($14), which is actually a cured duck breast, prepared in-house, the meat originating from Stone Church Farm in Rifton, north of New Paltz; two-year-old brown-sugar-cured Mountain Man Ham from Virginia ($14) and jamon serrano ($12), a prosciutto-like dry-cured ham from Spain.

My serving of the last-named was as different from a slice of Smithfield as can be imagined, a poignant reminder of how terrible domestic commercial ham-making has become. The slices, thin to the point of translucence, released such concentrated flavors to the tongue that I was reminded how powerful even small molecular arrays can be.

Panzur’s menu ducks the appetizer-entrée model by spreading the offerings around the page in variously sized and priced groupings. Cheese, charcuterie and ham dominate the middle, surrounded by the snacks, soups, salads, tapas and full-blown dinners. My daughter and I had just finished five hours of music and lectures at Bard and needed to refresh for the evening events, and thus enjoyed the picnic atmosphere of choosing an array of small plates while enjoying the view from a pleasant windowside table.

We started with pig ears, of course, and so should you. Chip and Dip, they term it: a small $5 dish of crisp, fried cartilage served with saffron-scented yogurt. The flavor is subtle, the crunch sublime, and I’d take these over potato chips or french fries any day. Other $5 starters include seasoned almonds, pippara peppers and olives. You might also like the heritage pig belly with a sherry-cherry-molasses glaze ($11); pintxo ($9), a pork-and-manchego-stuffed pepper; or a selection of croquetas ($6 each). A soup special promised lobster with gazpacho ($15), which already seemed too rich. Turns out that the tomato base of the soup is laced with watermelon, a combination so pleasing in itself that the island of creamy lobster meat in the middle was an indulgent bonus.

Peraza has a special fondness for charcuterie; recent menu selections included chorizo ($7), country pâté ($12), lomo Iberico ($14, from acorn-fed Iberian pig loin) and potted pig head ($10). Six cheese selections are available $5 apiece or three for $13; we opted for a hard, pungent idiazabal from Spain’s Basque country, which was presented with a garnish of pickled onion.

Know that it’s not all pig. A sirloin is $23, salmon is $20, pan-roasted chicken $19. On the tapas side, mussels are $12, fried chickpea-dusted squid $12, garlic shrimp $12—and there’s an $8 tortilla espanola featuring local eggs.

But I need to tell you about migas ($13), a sensational little dish that topped all that had come before (or alongside, actually). The name means “crumbs,” and it’s a traditional—though widely varied—way of using leftovers, as so many flavorful dishes are. The restaurant’s baguettes are the bread source, day-old bits of it sautéed in olive oil. Heirloom tomatoes are added, then pieces of year-old Ozark ham. Roasted coffee beans are added to the braising broth to mimic red-eye gravy; the liquid is turned into a cold vinaigrette that will be tossed with the hot ingredients before serving. Meanwhile, an egg is poached sous vide for 90 minutes, giving it a surprising creaminess. It’s added, with Spanish mahon cheese and sautéed black kale. Then, going literally over the top, a powder processed from dehydrated ham is sprinkled on the dish to add extra bursts of flavor as it dresses the other sensations that hit the tongue.

We finished with excellent coffee, promising to explore a dessert of chocolate-olive terrine ($8) next time. Or perhaps more cheese. But I’ll certainly encore the migas—rarely has so seemingly little tasted so tremendous.