The Amada experience begins even before you step through the heavenly white curtains. Walk past this Old City restaurant on any given night, at any given time, and behold a rare sight in Philadelphia: an ever-lively crowd of excited diners. Amada’s signature majestic windows offer a glimpse of an enchanting Iberian world that lures in hungry patrons even at 10 p.m. on a cold winter Monday night.
This amazing local success story was conceived by chef and owner Jose Garces, one of America’s top Latin chefs. Garces was born and raised in Chicago by Ecuadoran parents. His cuisine thus clearly draws from his Latin heritage. After graduating from culinary school and apprenticing in Spain, he honed his culinary (and business) skills at restaurateur extraordinaire Stephen Starr’s Alma de Cuba and El Vez. He opened Amada in October 2005, introducing the tapas trend to Philadelphia. But Amada isn’t just another trendy hipster hang-out that offers food on the side. It’s consistently described as one of the country’s top Spanish restaurants and Chef Garces has been the recipient of numerous culinary awards, including “Rising Star Chef” by Restaurant Hospitality magazine (June 2004).
So what makes Amada so successful? Besides the irrefutable fact that Amada serves great food (more on that later), Amada also exudes sex appeal. With its enthralling flamenco performances (Wednesdays at 9pm, Fridays at 10pm), its attractive staff, and its luscious décor, Amada always makes you want to come back for more. The restaurant’s designer, Jun Aizaki of Crème Design, has created a wonderfully enchanting space with a room to suit every taste. Amada includes two bars: an atmospheric 30-seat main bar complete with hanging cured hams, a meat slicer, and whole cheeses located near the entrance, and a more cozy back bar in the lounge with six stools. The full menu is served in both areas. In the main bar area, there are also a series of high top tables and bar stools. The main dining room tables are rectangular and long; some are covered with black mats, others are simply made out of wood and left bare. Little black lanterns sit on every table and contribute to the romantic mood. The best table in the house, located on the elevated flamenco stage, is enclosed in wispy white muslin curtains. Other adventurous seating areas include the two large wooden tables by the window. Set apart from the rest of the dining room, they stand on a pool of rocks (stilettos beware!) and guests sit on benches instead of chairs. At the end of the main dining room, you’ll find the chef’s counter. With six high chairs, it’s the perfect spot for the single diner or for curious eaters who feast with their eyes as much as their mouths. Amada also offers a large back lounge area where patrons dine on soft, plush couches with oversize pillows. The dining experience in the lounge is more intimate than in the main dining room (which can be a bit too loud sometimes). There is also a private dining room, separated from the lounge by curtains.
Amada stands out from other upscale dining experiences in the area by being utterly unpretentious. The restaurant is clearly one of the best in the city (it’s recommended that you make a weekend reservation 4-8 weeks in advance!), and yet there is no dress code and the staff is always friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to accommodate guests. The restaurant is always bustling with activity, and although some may consider the noise level a bit much, it’s hard not to love a restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Guests are encouraged to drink, mingle, and share plates – in a hip and sexy yet laid back atmosphere. The drink menu includes the popular house-made sangria (both red and white), funky cocktails named after Pedro Almodovar films, local and international beers, as well as a wine list that’ll make any Spanish wine connoisseur weep with joy. A celebration of the Spanish tapas tradition, Amada boasts an extensive and adventurous dinner menu: cured meats, cheeses, soups and salads, cocas (Spanish flatbreads), and a selection of tapas (including many vegetarian options). The staff usually suggests sharing 2-3 tapas per person, but some dishes are larger than others. The tapas range from $4 to $19. The tapas can add up, but the quality of the ingredients, the freshness of the preparation, and the gorgeous presentation make them worth every penny.
During a recent visit to Amada, I sample a variety of dishes, each more delicious than the last. My dinner begins with an order of Gazpacho, Crab Salad, and Avocado Mousse. A chunk of crab salad and an avocado wedge sit at the bottom of a white bowl before the waiter pours the cold yellow gazpacho on top. A smear of green avocado mousse decorates the bowl, turning the dish into a beautiful work of art. The crab salad contains generous amounts of crab that are accentuated with tangy red tomatoes and crisp parsley, with lemon juice and crème fraiche blending it all together. The salad is chewy and fresh, with a hint of spiciness. The cold yellow soup consists mainly of yellow tomato puree, with a hint of cucumber and vinegar. The texture is thick and smooth and the flavor bold and citrusy. This colorful gazpacho soup is ideal for the spring and summer seasons.
Another dish that radiates spring freshness is the Habas a la Catalana, a warm fava and lima bean salad. The large beige and green colored beans (which are cooked to a perfect consistency) swim in a deliciously fresh sauce that contains hints of thyme, red onions, sherry vinegar, shallots, whole grain mustard, honey, and olive oil. The sauce is so good that I’m tempted to lick it off the bowl. Contrasting with the fresh acidity of the sauce are the large raw idiazabal cheese shavings that crown the salad. Idiazabal cheese is an aged cheese made from whole unpasteurized sheep’s milk that hails from the Basque country in Spain. Its rich and nutty flavor adds to the sweet zests of the salad.
I then order the Piquillos Rellenos, the crab-stuffed peppers. The peppers are presented in an earthy terracotta bowl that rests on a wooden board. The red pepper is cut in half and stuffed with the tasty crab mixture, and then drizzled with an orange-colored, smoked paprika aioli and crunchy bits of toasted almonds. The crab mixture includes lemon juice, garlic, mayonnaise, chives, and gooey San Simon cheese. The peppers are warm, sweet, and slightly piquant, playing off nicely with the briny flavors of the crab. The cheese is creamy and salty, and serves as the glue that binds all the delicious ingredients together. The nutty almonds provide a welcome crunch and give off an intoxicating scent. I only wish there was more to eat! The peppers are so tasty, they’re devoured in just a few bites.
Hungry for more, I try the Madre e Hijo (“mother and son”), a cute reference to the chicken and egg, two of the dish’s main ingredients. The plate consists of a chicken breast with fried egg and truffles. The round yellow egg yolk pops out against the white plate and is served on top of the sausage-like chicken breast. The yolk runs as soon as my fork cuts through it, the yellow sauce blending into the truffle chicken jus. The chicken and egg are accompanied by fingerling potatoes (with skin) and black specks of sliced truffle. Madre e Hijo feels like the ultimate breakfast treat, the salty egg harmoniously combines with the warm, chewy potatoes, gravy-like sauce, and sausage-shaped chicken. The black truffles add a hint of luxury and sophistication to this deceivingly simple dish.
After all this, I can hardly take another bite. But I am determined to try one of the desserts. I sample the Crema Catalana. It arrives on a beautiful rectangular white plate and proves to be another work of art. On the left, sit two blackberries on top of a syrupy blackberry juice. A crunchy allspice pastry tube lies on top of the plump purple berries. In the center sit an oval crème brûlée-like custard and a dollop of whipped cream. On its right, a blackberry rests on a trail of graham-cracker-like nuts (I am told that this is, in fact, an almond nib praline). The custard, with its crunchy caramelized top, is wonderfully rich and creamy, boasting a strong lavender aroma. Cut into the custard and a bright red strawberry gelée spills out. The accompanying whipped cream looks innocent enough, but once in the mouth, the airy cream’s strong, orange-liqueur flavor bursts onto the tongue. It is the perfect finish to a perfect meal.
Jose Garces’ Amada offers an incredible dining experience you won’t soon forget. With mouth-wateringly delicious tapas, an incredible drink selection, exciting flamenco performances, and warm, attentive service, Amada will always be Philadelphia’s “loved one.”