Res­tau­rant Re­view

El Mesón

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Molly Boyle

It’s a Tues­day night at El Mesón, and in the ladies’ room, a woman is strap­ping her­self into a pair of flame-red heels made for tango. “I’m here to dance,” she de­clares, and as another pa­tron in the bath­room wishes her well with the hope that she’ll have good part­ners, she firmly shakes her head. “It’s not about the part­ners. It’s about the dance.”

She’s got a good grasp of El Mesón’s strengths: its cav­ernous bar and stage host live en­ter­tain­ment four nights a week (and tango danc­ing on the fifth night). The tal­ents of the jazz, fla­menco, soul, and blues mu­si­cians, along with the ca­pa­ble wait­staff, can thor­oughly charm the cus­tomers, who are there to soak up the am­biance of a tra­di­tional Span­ish

taberna as much as they are to eat ta­pas and drink ex­cel­lent san­gria. Ta­pas are served in both the bar and the qui­eter ad­ja­cent din­ing room, but the din­ing room also of­fers a more ex­ten­sive menu, in­clud­ing en­trée op­tions and sev­eral dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of paella. But where the mu­sic de­lights, the menu can fal­ter, and if you find your­self in the din­ing room with­out the dis­trac­tion of the bar’s revelry, you just might end up with an empty wal­let and a side of sub­tle dis­ap­point­ment.

A re­cent meal in that din­ing room be­gan beau­ti­fully, with crusty bread (from Sage Bake­house), fla­vor­ful olive oil, and a crisp (and af­ford­able, at $29) bot­tle of cava, along with our waiter’s el­e­gant ex­pla­na­tion of the day’s spe­cials. Four dif­fer­ent ta­pas dishes ar­rived in pairs at per­fectly timed in­ter­vals. In the gam­bas al ajillo, shrimp sautéed with sliced gar­lic and chile flakes are served siz­zling in a cazuela. But the shrimp seemed rub­bery and too far re­moved from their place of ori­gin. Though the cro­que­tas de can­grejo (crab cro­quettes) were com­ple­mented by a tangy roasted gar­lic aioli, the cro­quettes were over­salted. The al­ca­chofas

rel­lenas, what the menu de­scribes as flash-fried ar­ti­choke hearts stuffed with herbed Span­ish goat cheese served over romesco sauce with caper berries, were like a very slightly el­e­vated moz­zarella stick — the goat cheese was light and creamy, but the ar­ti­choke was too heav­ily breaded, more deep-fried than flash-fried, and the bland sauce barely made an im­pres­sion.

The menu high­lights each dish’s Span­ish re­gion of ori­gin, so mov­ing on to Basque ter­ri­tory, we or­dered the chorizo tx­is­torra, a grilled tx­is­torra sausage served with pars­ley and pine nut pesto. My North Carolina-born com­pan­ion com­mented on its pre­sen­ta­tion, which lacked fi­nesse: “Well, looks like we got green stuff with wieners here.” The chorizo was un­evenly cut and un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously stuck with tooth­picks on a hap­haz­ard bed of what turned out to be a rather acidic pesto sauce, which didn’t part­ner well with the salty chorizo. Dessert pro­vided a pick-me-up, though, with a paso

doble of a silky or­ange flan and a fine flour­less cho­co­late cake, which could have ben­e­fit­ted from one more spoon­ful of its ac­com­pa­ny­ing sweet espresso syrup.

Din­ers in gen­eral have a ten­dency to com­plain that ta­pas are a crap­shoot, and that the norm is to leave a ta­pas res­tau­rant with a semi-full stom­ach, hav­ing spent a small for­tune. While El Mesón cer­tainly holds up the pricey end of this stereo­type, its por­tions are rea­son­able, and I left feel­ing com­fort­ably sated each time I vis­ited.

On tango night in the bar, the kitchen had a stur­dier com­mand of its dishes. The san­gria went down smoothly. A spe­cial of blis­tered Padrón pep­pers seemed like the per­fect dance-floor mo­ti­va­tor — fresh as could be, they had been care­fully sautéed and salted, and their spice was stand­out. The chuleti­tas de cordero, two small grilled lo­cally raised lamb chops with chimichurri sauce, were also nicely charred, the meat a blush­ing medium rare. The em­panadil­las

de atún (yel­lowfin tuna turnovers with date, tomato, and basil com­pote) may have suf­fered from an over­abun­dance of pas­try, but the com­pote’s fla­vors blos­somed with its fresh in­gre­di­ents. The jamón Ser­rano — a tra­di­tion­ally cured moun­tain ham of Spain aged 18 months, which is thinly sliced to or­der and which we or­dered with ripe honey­dew melon — seemed to sum up the ta­pas of El Mesón in mi­cro­cosm: de­cent but only slightly inspired. That night, the most trans­portive el­e­ment in the room re­mained the sen­sual, stac­cato steps of the dancers as they swirled clock­wise around the floor.

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