Thursday, July 27, 2006

Little plates in search of a meal. tapas.

Supposedly, tapas are what you eat a few hours before your actual dinner. It is essentially bar food. This is especially appropriate in Spain, where tapas originated, because around six or seven o’clock, you start getting a little hungry, and dinner isn’t until ten or eleven. (Personally, I find that insane). So you go to a tapas bar around what the rest of us consider dinnertime, have a glass of wine, some olives marinated with herbs and garlic, or a twist of lemon peel, some jamon Serrano, slices of sausage, or fried anchovies, a little bread and cheese, or perhaps you might order a slice of torta, that Spanish onion-and-potato frittata, baked in a frying pan, unmolded onto a plate, and sliced to order, served at room temperature. Or maybe some empanadas. If you are a starving tourist who considers dinner after 8:30 barbaric, you can make a meal of this (I speak from experience).

At some point in recent years, tapas bars became rather trendy in America. A number of places calling themselves tapas bars, or serving tapas-style dishes, sprang up all over the place. They are not what I consider real tapas, traditional Spanish tapas, but instead they borrow the concept of small plates meant to be shared, two or three (at least) per person making up a meal. Slightly more traditional is The Harvest Vine.

We went to The Harvest Vine a few times when it first opened several years ago, but at that time it was simply a counter and three tables, no reservations, and always jam-packed with people. The restaurant is in a converted garage; in summertime the garage door is raised and extra tables spill outside, underneath a bamboo awning. Even the crisply roasted blood sausage with mashed-potato cakes, crusty and speckled with scallions, was not enough to entice me there, as I have an aversion to both a) waiting in line and b) struggling to find street parking. Now they have expanded to the basement wine cellar, and accept reservations (although sadly, you still have to find street parking. Did I mention I’m terrible at parallel parking?).

Last night we started with some sautéed mushrooms, piping hot and fragrant with garlic and parsley and a little sherry. Then came spinach with pine nuts and raisins, with the minerally tang of spinach mellowed by the sweetness of golden raisins, the crunch of pine nuts. Pork cheeks braised with sherry and sprinkled with almonds followed, tender and juicy and incredibly delicious. Half an eggplant, spread with tomato sauce and cheese and then roasted arrived at the table. A filet of salmon was seared until crusty on both sides, slightly rare in the middle, with sweet cherry tomatoes that tasted of summer. Then there was a grilled sardine, lemony and sweet. To complete the trio of seafood was a plate of pan-roasted mackerel, crisp-skinned, with woodsy chanterelles accented by the sweetness of currant jam. As a nod to nostalgia, I asked for a plate of jamón Serrano, salty-sweet and intense. Finally, in need of more vegetables, we ordered a cool lentil salad, shot with the sweetness of onion confit and bright sparks of vinegar, and perfectly fried baby green peppers, salty and mildly spicy. Still, there was room for an intense chocolate crème with espilette pepper, a creamy coconut flan, and an olive-oil wine cake with poached peaches.

In all, it was a very good dinner. But it was not tapas the way I remember tapas, and I almost longed for merely some crusty bread, a plate of jamón serrano and lomo, perhaps something hot like spicy rounds of grilled blood sausage, a bowl of olives and a glass of wine.

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