a little goes a long way
TAPAS AROUND TOWN
SNACK AND BE SEEN
“In its original form,” writes Anya von Bremzen in The New Spanish Table, “the tapa (from the word tapar, to cover) was a free slice of cheese or jamón that topped a glass of sherry, thus protecting the drink from flies and dust.” Over the past two centuries, the practice has spread from a convenience for stagecoach drivers in Andalucía to a national obsession that tapas expert Juan Carlos Alonso “describes as drinking, eating, chatting, strolling, greeting, seeing, being seen” — it’s as much a way of life as a way of dining in Spain.
¡Chispa!, the tapas bar at El Mesón Restaurant (213 Washington Ave., 505-983-6756), has been offering Santa Feans a taste of that lifestyle for more than 15 years. The room is rustic, with a matador’s suit of lights tucked into a corner by the stage and a set of posters by Julio Romero de Torres — whose work a friend who had visited his museum in Córdoba described as haunted by women, flamenco, and death — on the opposite wall.
The list of wines by the glass and the bottle, and sherries, from very dry to very sweet, is extensive and well priced. Although tapas originated in the sherry-producing region of Andalucía, we opted for a split of sparkling Spanish cava and a glass of a crisp, young albariño — both equally fine pairings with a range of tapas.
There are more than two dozen tapas on the regular menu, each labeled with its region of origin. On a recent visit, we started with a dish of mixed olives and a plate of jamón serrano, a traditional cured Spanish ham. We had been hoping for a taste of the hard-to-find jamón iberico — the mountain ham made from the famed Iberian acorn-fed black pigs — but a new leg had just arrived and was not yet ready to serve. But the less exotic serrano did not disappoint. Stacked on olive oil-dipped bread or on the end of a fork, the paper-thin slices were firm, dry, and somewhat sweet.
A small plate of berenjena frita — lightly fried wedges of eggplant drizzled with cane syrup and sprinkled with saffron — followed. Eggplant can be a sponge for olive oil, but these perfectly cooked slabs were neither soggy nor greasy, just melting softly within their thin crust. A bowl of mussels cooked in wine, tomato, and garlic from the nightly specials list came next — another simple dish perfectly executed, not an overcooked or unopened bivalve in the symmetrically arranged bowl.
We ended the evening with patatas dos salsas, twicefried red potatoes served with a spicy, smoky red chile sauce and smooth roasted garlic aioli. Dipped first in the chile and then in the aioli, washed down with the last of the wine, the crispy little wedges were the perfect ending to a most enjoyable — and delicious — evening. But as good as it is, El Mesón isn’t just about the food. With live entertainment every night, ¡Chispa! is also a perfect place to chat, stroll between the tables, see and be seen — the very definition of a classic tapas bar. — Patricia West-Barker
A TAPESTRY OF TAPAS
The art on a restaurant wall has probably never influenced your order, but at Taberna (125 Lincoln Ave., Suite 117, 505-988-7102) — the laid-back baby sister of James Campbell Caruso’s popular La Boca — a tapestry by Braldt Bralds depicting a largerthan-life tin of sardines may have your mouth watering for some small Mediterranean fish before you even take your seat. You won’t be left wanting, either. It’s not sardines but anchovies, or boquerones, that top the list of Campbell Caruso’s stellar collection of classic tapas (which the menu rightly labels “Untouchables”).
Knowing that sometimes one shouldn’t mess with perfection, the kitchen dresses the lovely silver-white fishies simply, with olive oil and lemon zest.
Taberna’s tapas menu, which overlaps slightly with La Boca’s, runs the gamut from almonds, olives, cheeses, and hams (both serrano and ibérico) to ruggedly charred artichokes brilliantly complemented by goat cheese, mint, and orange zest. A dusting of rice flour and a quick fry lends Brussels a delicate crispness; their vegetal funk is nicely offset by the addictively pepper-sweet and almond-rich romesco.
The chicharrónes Andaluz were so good we ordered them twice: nuggets of crisp-fried pork belly served in a tall paper-cone-lined glass. That lemon wedge is there for a reason — to give the porky dice a spritz — and don’t neglect the zesty harissa, the excess of which I hoarded for bread-dunking later. Anchovies reappear in the mojama — something akin to Andalucían sashimi — a spray of bright pink house-cured ahi tuna, buttery green avocado, salty boquerones, ribbons of red and yellow jalapeño, and crunchy tan rounds of toasted bread — with a small porcelain cup of seaweed salad at one end.
Taberna offers an alluring selection of Spanish, French, Italian, and American wines — the 2014 Fillaboa “Monte Alto” albariño is a delight, with its round fruit flavors and salty minerality — and a handful of beers. What may grab your attention, though, is the multicourse sherry pairing menu. The gazpacho panzanella — with tomatoes, red onion, and cucumber — is the perfect summertime kitchen-sink salad, served with the light-topaz Bodegas Toro Albalá “Electrico” Fino del Lagar. A richly nutty Bodegas Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado draws out the richness and flavor array in two fat crawfish-stuffed piquillo peppers on romesco cream and parsley oil. The pan-roasted beef tenderloin with chard, kale, peas, crunchy daikon, and demiglace is heartier fare, perhaps best suited for cooler weather; the pairing with Lustau’s “Don Nuño” Dry Oloroso was pitch perfect, though — rich, slightly bitter, and dryly sweet.
The staff is friendly but professional, with junior members efficiently stopping by to offer more bread and water. Taberna hosts live music many nights, and unlike many other venues in town, they get the amplification and volume right. You’ll have a choice of seating options: at the sturdy bar, in the main dining area, at a community table alongside a dramatic stacked-stone wall, or in the charming sunken courtyard. Seats disappear quickly, especially on busy weekends, so arrive early, take whatever’s available, or be prepared to wait. Taberna is worth it.
— Laurel Gladden
“Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion,” writes Charles Simic on artist Joseph Cornell’s intricate boxed assemblages of seemingly unrelated items. At La Boca (72 W. Marcy St., 505-982-3433), the crown jewel of Santa Fe tapas bars, James Campbell Caruso’s wizardry also lies in his ability to juxtapose different elements that play well together.
The 11-year-old restaurant’s shoebox storefront could easily be mistaken for a Manhattan café, with its cramped quarters, abutting tables, and bad acoustics. Here, the best-laid plans for a tête-àtête inevitably end with the conversational volume turned up to 11, as the clinking of wine glasses and the thrill in comparing the wonders of innumerable small plates elicit a certain gaiety. The short bar offers a cozy perch under a chalkboard of specials, where I was recently gifted with a sterling Bellini before ordering a watermelon salad with crackly jamón serrano, minced kalamata olives, lacy microgreens, feta, and a light sherry vinegar syrup. The summery arrangement married sweet and tart and salty flavors with practiced abandon.
From there, we lit on the doll-size but well-stuffed blood sausage and shrimp tacos alongside a slippery mango-cucumber salad and pimentón agridulce, which could’ve been served at a seaside taberna in San Sebastián. The next whirl of flavors took us to Morocco, as the charred, tender Talus Wind Ranch lamb skewer was presented with a smear of smoky harissa and pearled Israeli couscous. La Boca’s wine list crisscrosses Europe but has a heavy Spanish accent — a fellow bar patron, searching in vain for a Nero d’Avola, had to content himself with the bartender’s steering him toward the 2013 Torres Altos Ibéricos Rioja, which he said was fantastic, anyway, and got at the heart of what he wanted from the Nero.
Some standouts on the menu are time-honored classics, like the foamy crimini mushroom bruschetta topped with a cloud of creamy fried egg, shaved Reggianito, and a kiss of truffle oil — or the beloved gâteau Basque dessert of vanilla cream tart and crème fraîche, which is bejeweled with brandied cherries and pairs smashingly with a glass of the Kopke Porto 2007.
Spicing from the kitchen here can, on occasion, come off as heavy-handed, as with a recent sampling of the carrot garbanzo hummus. Served with warm parsley butter, chunky escabeche, and black sesame-studded crackers, the hummus had a sweet foretaste before its flavor was handily overtaken by cumin. It was a rare miss on a menu that seems to be creatively updated on every visit and always educational, revealing the smart and obsessive master behind the curtain. Santa Fe may have several cards up its sleeve, tapas-wise, but for my money, La Boca consistently plays the best hand.
The chicharrónes Andaluz were so good we ordered them twice: nuggets of crisp-fried pork belly served in a tall paper-cone-lined glass.
Sardines, woven tapestry; below, La Boca and Taberna’s sherry pairing menu