Pulpo en Su Tinta at Topolobampo ($15.50)
The unique traditions and flavors of Veracaruz, a mountain-ringed port town on the Gulf of Mexico, was the inspiration for this octopus dish, which features a tableside pour of wonderfully briny "tinta" broth composed of tomato, poblano chile, masa, and squid ink. The octopus is sous vide at 180 degrees for three hours prior to service, and then shocked with ice to halt cooking. Portions are then flash-grilled à la minute. Beneath the octopus is a Veracruz-style tamal made with poblano chile, parsley, and hoja santa ("holy leaf," which Chef Rick Bayless grows in his own garden and has root beer-like flavor characteristics akin to fennel and sassafras). The plate is finished with pickled onions and crab salpicon. The juxtaposition of earth and sea, captured on a plate.
Grilled baby octopus from Sepia ($14)
This new dish from James Beard Award nominee chef Andrew Zimmerman begins with the slow braising of baby octopus with olive oil and paprika. The generous portion of octopus is then grilled to order. At the base of the plate is a sauce made of butter and dry vermouth, and sitting alongside the octopus are braised stinging nettles, Arbequina olives from Spain, and Calabrian chiles, which the chef values for what he describes as their "pickle-y" flavor and bright acidity. A few sprigs of tangerine lace complete this bold yet elegant plate.
Spicy Mono at Japonais ($17)
Melt-in-your-mouth spicy tuna tartare, fish roe, boiled and chopped octopus tossed in with Japonais's housemade spicy mayo, and a delightful salty-sweet unagi sauce make up the major components of this signature Japonais sushi roll. The unagi sauce comprises soy, sugar, and Ozeki sake, reduced to a syrupy thickness. The spicy, sweet, and savory elements work really well together, without crowding out the delicious tako at the heart of this roll.
Octopus Salad at Fish Bar ($9)
Fish Bar is successfully channeling New England seafood shacks with its rustic décor and ingredient-highlighting, no-nonsense preparations. And the chefs have a winner with this well-dressed chopped salad, which combines octopus, scallions, red bell pepper, cabbage, and baby greens. The octopus is grilled, chilled, and sliced thin, allowing its chewy natural texture to stand out among the crunchier greenery without overwhelming the dish. The spicy, fragrant vinaigrette dressing ties everything together nicely.
Grilled Baby Octopus at Girl & The Goat ($13)
With all its rich colors and shapes, this is a beautiful plate to behold. The situation only improves once you get eating. The curling baby octopus arms that anchor this dish must have been grilled over a guanciale-stoked fire, because the meat's splendidly rich, bacon-by-way-of-Italy flavor is shot through every bite. To complement the octopus, the kitchen adds nutty pistachios, thinly sliced radish, peeled string beans, and spines of radicchio for a hint of bitterness. The brightness of the pistachio-lemon vinaigrette dressing lifts all the flavors at play. But what I like most about this dish is that the kitchen leaves the octopus on the rarer side, giving the plate a heartiness and body that seems to define Chef Stephanie Izard's intensely satisfying cuisine.
Baby Octopus at Saigon Sisters ($14)
The silkiest octopus I tried was at Saigon Sisters, where the chefs confit and then grill the meat to ensure optimal tenderness. The cuttlefish ink rice is fluffy and deep in flavor, if a bit salty. In addition to a dusting of togarashi, which provides a nice hit of spice, the plate features paper-thin radish slices and curls of scallion. A citrusy, ginger-tinged sweetness turns up in some bites, lending this already alluring dish even more tasty intrigue.
Octopus salad at The Slurping Turtle ($11)
This became an instant favorite of mine since my first visit to Slurping Turtle. It may appear to be a fairly simple salad, but huge flavors abound. Baby cucumber, tomato, and hearty chunks of octopus are topped with delicate tosaka seaweed and housemade tobanjian dressing, one of Chef Takashi Yagihashi's great inventions. (He's big on toasted sesame and other savory flavors.)
Octopus at The Publican ($16)
The Publican is known for its mindful sourcing of ingredients, and on a recent visit its eight-armed offerings all hailed from the Canary Islands, well-known octopus stomping grounds. A deep charcoal flavor coated the meat, which sat atop a bed of nutty farro. The octopus was left just a little resilient, to pair texturally with the crunchy grain. Tangerine segments, radish quarters, and baby spinach leaves rounded out the roughage, and a zesty acidity kicked up the volume on all the other ingredients.