For those of you who have only encountered octopus while studying binomial nomenclature in middle school science, it may come as a shock to learn that this gangly armed ballet dancer of the sea has long been a staple of many coastal food cultures. These mysterious and highly intelligent creatures are considered a delicacy in a multitude of cuisines, including Japanese, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cultures. Some of their cultural names include "tako," "polpo," "pulpo" and "polvo," respectively. Heck, the Spaniards have full-on restaurants called pulperias solely dedicated to the preparation of the prized octopus.
Octopuses are abundant in temperate waters all over the world. But most Americans, erring on the side of squeamish, would just as soon throw this catch overboard.
The octopus is a cephalopod (which comes from a Greek term meaning "head-feet") and is part of the class that also includes the squid and cuttlefish. When done right, the tentacled creature is tender and meaty, not to mention quite healthy. When mishandled and overcooked, the octopus can be rendered irreversibly chewy and rubber-tire tough. The key to octopus preparation is cooking it long enough so that it becomes tender and pliant, but not overcooking it. It's not hard to prepare, but it does take some time to do it right. Octopus has to be cajoled to tenderness through a long, hot soak in boiling water or a slow, simmering braise.
Of course, you could just beat the shit out of it on a rock like the Greeks do, or let someone else do the cooking for you. Here's a list of Charlotte restaurants that are doing it right.
The Spanish tapas bar in Uptown expertly prepares its Pulpo ($13) Galician-style, with potatoes, smoked paprika and rivers of olive oil. After boiling the tentacles with carrots, celery and paprika for a spell, Malabar then marinates the suction-cupped appendages in a simple mixture of lemon juice and olive oil for several hours. The exceptional dish is grilled a la plancha to order, sliced into succulent meaty hunks and served over large discs of olive oil-soaked potatoes, sprinkled with more paprika and a smattering of mixed olives. Malabar nails the preparation, yielding a sensual experience with each bite of the fork-tender pulpo. 214 N. Tryon St. 704-344-8878. www.conterestaurantgroup.com/malabar.
Across the promenade from Malabar, nudged against the Hearst Tower, is Luce, an upscale Italian restaurant, filled with suits nabbing a power lunch by day. Luce serves a chargrilled version of Atlantic coast octopus, called "Polipo" ($11.95). Here, octopus tentacles are tenderized in boiling water and then grilled over an open flame and served with crispy fried capers, artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers. The result is a pleasantly smoky dish with a slight and welcome chew. The combination of acidic red peppers, soft artichoke hearts and salty, crispy capers will have you stacking each component for the perfect bite until there's nothing left. 214 N. Tryon St. 704-344-9222. www.conterestaurantgroup.com/luce.
The Elizabeth eatery serves BBQ Octopus ($14) on its small plates menu. The Portuguese octopus is cooked down, then further tenderized with olive oil and paprika, grilled to order and served with a warm fingerling potato salad laced with rich, golden egg yolk. The dish is accompanied with a zesty pop of lemon peel jam, which I could eat by the spoonful, and spicy Calabrian pepper aioli. This one's a palate pleaser. 1601 Elizabeth Ave. 704-333-3396. www.customshopfood.com.
Stagioni is the only restaurant I found that incorporates octopus heads as well as tentacles into its Mediterranean-style dish listed simply as Grilled Octopus ($13) on the menu. Served as antipasto, the warm octopus salad is perfect for a light dinner. Chef Larry Schreiber poaches baby Spanish octopus in a court bouillon until sweetly tender. The heads are made into a beautiful salad — thinly sliced into rings and tossed with micro-herbs, pickled onions and roasted peppers. The tentacles are then grilled to order until the tips are lightly crisped and tossed in a delicate lemon dressing. A deeply tomato vinaigrette, charred and slightly sweet, accompanies the delightful dish and begs for you to slog your octopus through the flavorful pool. 715 Providence Road. 704-372-8110. www.stagioniclt.com