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.