Detour Before Dark: Jazz Night at Aioli Bodega Espanola

By Scott Thomas Anderson — originally published in the Roseville Press Tribune.

In the portrait-cluttered taverns of Seville you can still hear cante jondo, or “deep song,” a rhythmic, ringing Spanish ballad infused with the pastoral cries of Gypsies, Arab poets and Hebrew wanderers. It’s the aching memory of Andalusia’s past. It’s what one writer called the sound of Southern Spain’s “erotic passion for life.”

A family who knows the legacy of cante jondo has been working for years to bring its celebratory energy to midtown Sacramento, creating a destination that inspires the savoring of food aromas and laughing over loud, pinging glasses.

The hope is that customers will feel high spirit incarnate.

It’s a Wednesday evening and dusks throws an amber light on the Old World canopies of Aioli Bodega Espanola. The crowd drifting through the doors is sundry to say the least, ranging from tie-clad Assemblymen to young couples in polos and black cocktail dresses. These faces are as diverse as the homage the restaurant’s menu pays to culinary rituals from Mostagane to Grenada.

Under the glow of slanted, glass-pedals jutting overhead, Sacramento’s New Jazz Quartet launches into a song, a 1940s standard riding clean drum work and the skipping precision of a piano. Trumpeter Jay Dewald raids the tempo with a razor-compressed squawk through his Harmon mute. The band’s song runs through the room’s edgy Iberian ambiance, echoing off a Neo-Cubist mural and the bronze statue of Basque soldier guarding the door to Aioli’s garden patio. Faces turn from their tables. This is Aioli’s Jazz night, which happens the first Wednesday of every month.

This scene of bustling energy was always part of owner Reda Bellarbi’s vision. Reda opened Aioli in 1994 after immigrating to the region from Algiers. Having raised his son, Aziz, in the restaurant from the time he was a teen, Reda’s always proclaimed that his Spanish neighbors across the Alboran Sea perfected his homeland’s recipes by simply adding pork fat and red wine over the flames. These days, Aziz is one of the busiest restaurateurs in Sacramento, running Aioli while opening a second project in Downtown. And he remains a constant champion of Vino. He carries one of the most durable pocket wine-openers in the world.

“I open a lot of bottles — a lot,” Aziz says. “I’ve gone through three of these things in a year.”

One this night, as evening rays retreat from the windows, glasses of red and white are landing across the dining rooms to the refrain of steady brushes on snare drums.

Dozens of plates of Tapas are gliding out of the kitchen. Among them are classics, such as Charcuteri y Queso Manchego, an arrangement of chorizos, jamon serrano and aged machego served with cured olives. Those who know the customs of Spanish bars will appreciate how Aioli’s moist jamon almost liquefies over the tongue, hitting the palate with its sharp, paper-thin salty tenderness.

Many who’ve opted to get warm Tapas have gone with the Albondigas Todo Ajo, a dish of meatballs drenched in a garlic paprika tomato sauce, brewed with a poached egg in the center. At one table, a slightly irreverent waiter recommends exactly which red wine to match with this plate. He pours the patrons a glass of Vina Santurnia, from a fourth generation vineyard in Brinas, which washes down the serving’s amalgam of runny yoke and solid ginger pinch with its cherry brightness, its simmering swing and the peppery punch on its back note. The pairing of wine and food is stellar.

Jay DeWald and singer Susan Burns, along with Ken Berger on keyboard and Wayne Bruns on drums, keep their quixotic cadence gently going as entrees begin to appear on trays. Aziz has called the restaurant’s Executive Chef Pablo Hernandez “a magician,” and now at 8 pm the customers can judge for themselves. One order that’s hitting the tables is Aioli’s rabbit dish, which breaks off onto the fork in loose morsel-flakes, its buttery richness fused with the whirling nuances of white wine sauce that drenches the animal’s center. There is also a tingling, sour touch in the traces of its seasoning. Other patrons are being handed bowls of Calamares El Gitano: This small pile of looped squid is smothered in a spicy tomato sauce and ornamented with fresh mint, cilantro and garlic. The subtle chilly popping in its flavor is brightened by the tart juices of a large cut lemon.

But among the dishes that are raising the most eyebrows tonight is Aioli’s duck plate.

“This tastes incredible,” remarks Stacey Hoverson, a baker and pastry chef from West Sacramento. “It’s the best duck I’ve had in a really long time.”
Glancing over at The New Jazz Quarter a few tables from her seat near the window, she adds, “And the music is really good — perfect for this atmosphere.”

And the plates keep coming out, and the lively conversations go on, and the band keeps its tapping time — all as the last signs of sunlight pull away from California’s river city.

IN CONVERSATION

Aziz Bellarbi-Salah literally grew up under his father’s wing at Aioli Bodega, serving food and pouring wine and learning the art of interaction. He’s now one of Sacramento’s most active restaurateurs, having just opened his newest project, Brasserie Capitale, at 1201 K Street. He spoke with me about his life at Aioli.

Scott: Your father hails from Algiers, but your restaurant is Spanish?

Aziz: Mediterranean food is a fusion no matter where you are on that coastline. Spanish cuisine is interesting because it comes from so many places at once. It comes out of the medieval city-states in Spain, which each had their own touch, and it comes from Moorish and North African influences. Today’s Spanish dishes are truly about the melting of cultures.

Scott: What seems to be the ‘wow’ factor for people coming in?

Aziz: Our concept is traditional fare from Andalusia. It’s a certain take on broader fundamentals you find from France to Italy. Aioli is Spanish for garlic and olive oil, but there are certain ways to say almost the same thing in French and Italian, just different inflections. That element is in all of those cooking styles. I think our customers know that when they walk in they can expect a warm atmosphere and beautiful dishes.

Scott: Is there anything people won’t expect?

Aziz: With the staff we have here, it’s a cult of personality (laughs). New customers feel like they’ve been coming in for years.

Scott: What was the inspiration for your monthly Jazz nights?

Aziz: We already had Flamenco guitarists playing here almost every Friday night, and so, with the Jazz, we wanted to bring something new to the midweek. It makes sense. Here at Aioli, everything is run by rhythm. We can have a hundred covers just walk in off the street, but as soon as the Flamenco guitar starts to play, or the Jazz starts to fill the room, the entire place instantly calms down; and just like with the influences in the food, you see this fusion to the very rhythm the that waiters have coming in and out of the kitchen.

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