It never occurred to us here at the Pitch to add a “Best Survivor” category to our annual “Best Of” issue. But if I were permitted to give out such an award now, my choice would be veteran restaurateur José “Don Pepé” Fernandez.
Why? Well, for one thing, the Madrid-born chef has opened and closed five restaurants in the past two decades. That’s four more than most local restaurateurs could have done as stylishly and tastefully as Don Pepé did on a limited budget. And then there’s the dramatic arc of his personal life, which is as interesting and colorful as anything you’ll see on Guiding Light (or its Spanish-language counterpart, Univision’s La Madrastra). When I reviewed his last restaurant, the short-lived Don Pepé’s Spanish Cuisine (“Don of a New Day,” July 8, 2004), I briefly incurred his wrath by dredging up a scandal from his past that he prefers not to discuss. I don’t blame him, of course — I have a couple of not-so-little scandals in my own past that make me cringe … so don’t ask.
But Don Pepé’s story, which includes a stint as private chef to Aristotle Onassis, has had so many ups and downs that it has only burnished his image as a local celebrity — and a survivor. Everyone loves a comeback story, and Don Pepé has had more comebacks than John Travolta, Cher and Neil Diamond combined. At age 59, when plenty of his culinary contemporaries must at least have retirement on their minds, Don Pepé has opened his sixth restaurant, Café Sevilla. And I think it’s his very best.
It’s certainly the most glamorous space that has ever been associated with Don Pepé, with two floors of dining, a lovely private room for small parties, a strikingly attractive bar, and built-in cabinets holding 2,500 bottles of wine. “And the finest kitchen I’ve ever had in my life,” Don Pepé boasted about the large, stainless-steel cooking area on the north side of the building.
The building has been so lavishly outfitted that it bears no resemblance — inside or out — to its previous tenant, the lowbrow California Taqueria. There are now sleek hardwood floors, soaring ceilings and a wall of tall windows that look out on, well, the bottom of the Interstate 35 overpass. The palatial new restaurant sits almost exactly at the halfway point between Don Pepé’s fourth restaurant, El Patio (located a few blocks south on Southwest Boulevard) and his fifth, Don Pepé’s Spanish Cuisine.
At the risk of getting more complicated here, the fifth restaurant was also the site of Don Pepé’s third restaurant, Café Barcelona. Are you still with me? I don’t know why each of them closed, but most independent restaurants are financial gambles, particularly if they’re undercapitalized from the start. It’s a tough business.
The one consistent note in all of Don Pepé’s restaurants has been the menu. His culinary reputation rests on a collection of classic Spanish dishes that have been in his repertoire for decades. He hasn’t changed his offerings much over the years, probably because the customers who loyally follow him from one location to another don’t want him to stray from the stuff he does best: hot and cold tapas, grilled beef heaped with rich ingredients such as seafood and cream sauces, paella.
On the afternoon I had lunch at the three-month-old Café Sevilla, I brought Lou Jane, who has known Don Pepé for nearly three decades. “He’s the last of a certain breed of restaurateurs who are very hands-on in both the kitchen and the front of the house,” she told me. “People love it that he still comes out and talks to customers.”
I suspect that Don Pepé’s vivacious personality is a bigger attraction for some diners than his food; because I’ve eaten all of his signature dishes at least half a dozen times, I assume that most of his regulars have, too. The names of those dishes are different on Café Sevilla’s menu — there’s no Shrimp Don Pepé or Veal Don Juan — but the basic ingredients are the same: basil, pimentos, garlic, chorizo, artichokes, white wine, olive oil, cream.
One of his most popular appetizers — supple grilled scallops in a saffron cream sauce — has been renamed vieras a la Plancha. And I was thrilled when another hot dish that I loved from Don Pepé’s Spanish Cuisine, gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic, olive oil and parsley), showed up at the table. (I’d have sworn that it wasn’t actually listed on Café Sevilla’s menu.) It’s slightly similar to a garlicky shrimp “small plate” served across the street at that other famous tapas venue. From our table, we could gaze right across Southwest Boulevard and through the plate-glass windows of La Bodega, where little dishes (such as a layered potato torte called a “tortilla Espanola” and sautéed calamari in olive oil, garlic and lemon) were being served. We were eating the very same things.
La Bodega offers a wider selection of hot and cold tapas than Café Sevilla, but the options are very similar. Is this stretch of Southwest Boulevard big enough for two restaurants serving tapas and paella? The biggest difference between the two is style: La Bodega is laid-back and unpretentious, whereas Café Sevilla is grander and more formal.
More formal in décor, anyway. The servers are young, adorable and not terribly experienced. But they try awfully hard. A soft-spoken young man fussed over Lou Jane and me at lunch, a meal that began as an interesting tribute to a round, hard roll. The minute we sat down, two split rolls, each brushed with an herb butter and dripping with melted mozzarella, were set in front of us. Later, we shared the pork-loin appetizer (a bit too chewy) that was perched upon another split roll and drenched in an orange tomato-cream sauce.
No more hard rolls arrived with lunch, thankfully. This meal was almost perfect, but my grilled chicken kebab, pollo al diablo, had spent just a shade too long on the grill; all of the diablo sauce in Madrid couldn’t have disguised the charred surface. Lou Jane’s pasta, smothered in a fresh-tasting sauce of crushed tomatoes, basil and garlic, was delicious. She was impressed that the angel hair was perfectly cooked (“Most restaurants cook angel hair into mush,” she said), and the plump shrimp packed some heat.
On a chilly weekend night, I returned for dinner with Bob, Richard and Linda. We had to drive around the neighborhood a couple of times to snag a parking space, so we were stunned to step into a nearly empty restaurant. “Most people are upstairs,” the hostess whispered. On Friday and Saturday nights, a flamenco troupe plays guitar and dances noisily on a microscopic stage in the darker, less attractive upstairs dining room. Patrons who choose this room order from a prix-fixe dinner menu. “But they can order off the other menu, too,” Don Pepé said.
We voted to dine in the prettier space downstairs, which was twice the size of the upper room but had only a quarter as many people. Richard gave this room points for having good acoustics, comfortable chairs and romantic lighting. “It’s one of the prettiest dining rooms downtown,” said Linda, who later noted that the food was equally lovely. Don Pepé has always taken a painterly approach to composing his plates: a mound of vibrantly yellow saffron rice in one corner, a tidy assemblage of sliced carrots in another and something spectacular in the center. A good example is the sizzling slab of filet mignon, Filete Rosini, draped with a creamy artichoke sauce. “It’s unbelievably good,” Bob raved, “and a flawless cut of beef.”
Richard was awed by the size of his bowl of paella valencia, generously laden with mussels, scallops, shrimp, calamari, clams, chicken, and chorizo. “It’s almost too much,” he said. He took most of it home. Linda and I both longed for certain Don Pepé dishes that we recalled from earlier restaurants. For me it was pollo Andalucía, a Pamela Anderson-sized chicken breast blanketed with a wine sauce dappled with artichokes, tart capers and pimento. Linda wanted the trucha a la Navarra, but the kitchen had run dry of trout. She settled on salmon prepared a la Navarra style, with a soothing wine-and-onion salsa speckled with bits of Spanish ham and parsley.
The desserts that night included traditional Spanish flan (both caramel and a delicious chocolate version); Don Pepé’s famous garnet-colored, wine-poached pear; the ubiquitous tiramisu (is there any restaurant that doesn’t serve this?); and a slice of all-American chocolate cake.
I ate far too much of everything, but that’s what Don Pepé likes to see. He’s a firm believer in a healthy appetite. And if that’s how to be a survivor, I’m all for it.