Craigie Street Bistrot’s Spanish octopus à la poêle

Wrap your tentacles around this one
By KENJI ALT  |  December 14, 2007

When was the last time you cooked an octopus that came out of a washing machine? If you’re chef Tony Maws of Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, chances are your answer is “last night.” Like most of the dishes at Craigie Street, the Spanish octopus à la poêle undergoes a ridiculous transformation and rigorous scrutiny all the way from source to plate. Not the typical pre-cooked, frozen Japanese variety that grace the glass-countertop coolers of most sashimi bars, Maws’s octopus is flash-frozen raw in the Mediterranean, where it’s caught. The notoriously rubbery animal is then delivered to Octopus Gardens in Brooklyn, where it undergoes its washing-machine treatment: a bank of custom-built machines not-so-gently whack the unfortunate cephalopods into tender submission, all in an icy brine designed to keep them plump, moist, and fresh.

From there, it’s a quick truck ride to Maws’s homey-with-a-touch-of-mad-science bistro, where he submerges the octopus in a warm high-end olive-oil bath packed with the contents of your average herb garden and spice rack combined. The whole mix is kept at 160 degrees for five hours, at which point it’s so tender you could eat it with a dull wooden spoon — but its metamorphosis ain’t over yet. Two days in the walk-in, curing in the olive oil, guarantees that each bite will taste the way a private massage on a cruise ship feels: smooth, luxurious, and satisfying. A final stop under a blazing-hot salamander oven renders the exterior deliciously crispy and charred, with a smokiness that’s reinforced by the spicy Spanish chorizo-sausage purée that accompanies it on the plate. A small warm salad of cipollini onions, hearts of palm, and basil, though delicious on its own, really only serves to give you something to chew on while you decide which tender leg you’re going to sink your teeth into next. With a preparation this intricate, its story alone is worth the price tag.

Available for $16 at Craigie Street Bistrot, 5 Craigie Circle, in Cambridge. Call 617.497.5511.

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