Last week, I moseyed through the ivy-covered arches into España’s courtyard on South 4th Street to write my final “Eating Scene” for the Islander. I was really excited to spend it with my very good friends Marina and Roberto Pestana, for whom owner involvement is not a result of modern industry necessity, but rather one of España’s secrets to success. They have been nurturing their vision into a thoughtful and inviting space for almost 20 years, raising their family, and supporting the community. Fernandina Beach is lucky to have them; our town and our tummies are better for it.
Meeting me after a hectic day of doctor appointments is miracle mom, business owner, and very dear friend Melisa Carrol. We were seated in the rear portion of the dining room overlooking a meticulously manicured courtyard, complete with flowing fountain. One thing is certain, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Earlier that day, I had spoken to Roberto and he suggested a “tour de tapas.” As luck would have it, Melisa had never really explored the menu, so this would be an opportunity to slip outside of her comfort zone, if only for a little while.
We started off with Marcona Almonds, imported from Spain, seasoned and roasted and paired with glasses of Sangria. Then came an order of Cerdo y Higos, toasted bread topped with goat cheese, fig jam, Serrano Ham, and drizzled with a fig-and-balsamic glaze.
After the opener we enjoyed one of my favorite nightly features at España: their house-made empanadas. Tonight’s offering featured whole roasted duck folded into their signature flaky crust and fried to golden perfection. Dishes like the Honduran-style Papusas, thick, soft corn tortillas filled with beans and pork cicherones, adopted from the experiences of his staff and the talents of Chef Manny Santiago, keep España’s menu vibrant.
After a brief pause in the action, we were treated to a seafood sampler of fresh Escabeche de Pulpo, a special Grouper and Mango Escabeche, and Shrimp Ceviche. The difference between ceviche and escabeche are the preparation of the protein. With ceviche, the seafood is cured by its exposure to the acidic marinade, but in escabeche, the seafood is cooked and cooled ahead of the marinating process. Each is uniquely flavored and full of color, served with wings of Belgian-style endive.
Before dinner began, I told Roberto I hadn’t eaten all day, which may have been taken as a challenge because he kept slinging food at us. After the refreshing seafood course came Shrimp Toast, a fritter of chopped shrimp fried and served atop toasted bread, drizzled with chili oil and aioli. Then grilled beef tips topped with brûléed gorgonzola, and finally, an eggplant roulade served in a roasted tomato coulis with melted cheese. Melisa pretty much tapped out at the Shrimp Toast, leaving enough to fill a to-go box for her hungry teenagers waiting at home.
We finished the evening with a glass of 20-year Port and a slice of authentic Basque-style cheesecake. Burnt Basque cheesecake is a little lighter than New York-style cheesecake, with an airy texture more similar to soufflé but caramelized similar to a crème brûlée. España is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday and should not be missed. Call for reservations.