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Tapas on top: the small-plate revolution started with stylish, tasty tapas that are right at home at the bar.

Tapas have an interesting history, distinguished not only by their longevity--some culinary accounts trace tapas as far back as before the nineteenth century--but also by the fact that this dining tradition grew out of a simple gesture by a scrupulous barkeep. To keep dust and flies kicked up in a roadside taverna from getting into a glass of sherry, servers would cover the wine with a slice of bread. Topped then with a small slice of salty cheese, sausage or ham, the "lid" (tapa comes from the verb tapar, "to cover") would be eaten by the patron, perhaps inducing him to order another one.

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And so a distinct Spanish culinary tradition was born, as bar owners found that tapas possess an attraction all their own and began to expand the variety they offered. While there are standard tapas offerings--such as Marcona almonds, olives, tortilla espanola (potato omelet), Serrano ham, salt cod--the beauty of the concept is in the diversity of possible dishes. From garlic shrimp to blood sausage, roasted chickpeas to grilled quail, vinegary boquerones (marinated anchovies) to rich rabbit livers, the range of Spanish tapas is vast.

This broad selection of tapas likely has a great deal to do with the ever-growing popularity of tapas-like dishes in the U.S., giving customers an enormous variety of options. It's always an adventure. The Spanish custom has spawned what we now know as a "small plates" revolution, the idea of grazing on a variety of stylish small dishes. It's a great cross-over concept that has been translated to any number of different culinary settings, from Nuevo Latino to French to California cuisine.

BEYOND THE BAR

The tapas model perfectly suits the bar, where customers long for a little nibble of something to go with their glass of wine or cocktail. But it also suits the modern age of customization in the dining room as well. Diners don't have to commit to a traditional, pre-determined triad of an entree--protein, starch, vegetable; instead they can mix and match a number of different dishes to customize their dining experience with favorite items. Add a few friends to the table and the dynamic grows, everyone able to share bites of a dozen or more dishes in a social, engaging setting.

One destination for a rather traditional take on tapas is Jaleo in Washington, DC, which offers diners fifty or more choices on any given evening. The restaurant opened in 1993, and while not the first in the country to devote itself to traditional tapas, it certainly helped blaze trails in increasing the profile of the tapas tradition here. Spanish-born chef Jose Andres, named "chef of the year" by Bon Appetit magazine last year, had distinguished cooking experience in Spain (including a stint at the Michelin three-star El Bulli) before crossing the Atlantic to open Jaleo. The menu here features a foundation of cold and hot tapas--salt cod fritters, goat cheese stuffed peppers, grilled asparagus, apples with manchego cheese among them--as well as seasonal tapas, soups and salads.

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Jaleo's award-winning wine list offers a great sampling of Spanish wines, from intensely fruity albarino whites to more full-bodied, complex tempranillo reds. Sherry, of course, is popular, as is the Sangria, with a cava-based version especially popular during the summer. For that drink, sparkling wine is combined with a bit of brandy, Liquor 43, white grape juice, fresh peach and strawberry. "We concentrate on wines and Sangria," says director of operations Antoni Yelamos, "but we have a really nice Sherry Martini, vodka-based with sherry in place of the vermouth, it sells very well."

Yelamos is also proud of the restaurant's sherry list, but notes that "sherry has always been a very challenging drink. A lot of customers still have the notion of that beverage their grandmother used to drink, a little sweet." Jaleo works to introduce diners to its range of quality sherries. Its sherty sampler is a great tool to that end, three glasses that might include La Ina Fino, Hildalgo Amontillado and Osborne Olorosso for a side-by-side appreciation of the different styles available.

Jaleo has spawned not only two siblings in the area (one in Bethesda, MD and another in Arlington, VA) but also a small-plates concept, Zaytinya (which means olive oil in Turkish), presenting eastern Mediterranean dishes of the mezze tradition. And their Oyamel restaurant features antojitos, or Mexican-style small plates. "We really love small dishes," Yelamos explains, "it's a great way to have a dining experience."

BATALI DOES TAPAS, TOO

It's easy to think of New York restaurateur Mario Batali as Mr. Italy, but the mega-chef does have some Spanish roots as well. His father's Boeing career took the family to Spain in the late 1970s, Madrid to be specific. But in advance of opening his Casa Mono and its next-door sibling, Bar Jamon, in 2003 in New York City, Batali made a return trip to the Barcelona area to do some serious tapas research. The restaurant is inspired, in part, by Bar Pinotxo (means Pinocchio), a small place in the La Boqueria market area.

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"The kitchen is in the dining room," Batali explains. "Patrons sit at the bar that surrounds the kitchen and watch them cook, everyone goes home smelling like you've been working in the kitchen."

The Casa Mono menu features such dishes as pumpkin and goat cheese croquetas, mussels with cava and chorizo, tripe with chickpeas and morcilla (blood pudding) and razor clams a la plancha. The restaurant is open noon to midnight every day and while Monday and Tuesday afternoons can be "kind of sleepy," as Batali explains it, later in the week the place buzzes. "Saturday we're full all day, Sunday full all day because the Spaniards, and the people who want to be Spaniards, are eating lunch at 3:30, then the Americans start coming in for early dinner at 5 p.m." Tapas, by their very nature, manage to defy the American standard of mealtime.

In Seattle, San Sebastian native Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez and his wife Carolin have created a celebrated tapas destination at the seven-year-old Harvest Vine. The tiny, convivial corner space--with its open kitchen and copper-topped bar--now has a downstairs dining room to help accommodate fans.

From one visit to the next, customers will seldom find the menu to be exactly the same. One week the garbanzo beans are slightly caramelized and sauteed with Serrano ham, onion and arugula; the next week the beans are simply braised with tomato and spices. On another visit you may find baby chanterelles with onion confit and egg, and on the next it's been replaced with mussels and chard with a robust shellfish sauce. The wine list features 430 selections from the Basque region, both sides of the French-Spanish border. They also have a great selection of sherries, about twenty, most both by the glass and bottle.

One distinctive spin-off from the tapas tradition is another Northwest spot, Oba! in Portland, OR, which combines a blend of new world influences with old world convention. Chef Scott Neuman says he looks at the restaurant as "a Northwest restaurant that uses the influences from my background in Texas and Florida, and my travels in Central America and Mexico," to contribute to the menu's style.

"Tapas tradition is a part of the restaurant, conceptually," he says, "but reinterpreted for our market." While the menu also has full-sized platos, it features about a dozen tapas, of which they might sell 400 in an evening that serves 150 entree orders. Guests clearly relish the grazing value of the smaller portions. The two biggest sellers are seared Ahi tuna with mango-tomatillo salsa and crispy coconut prawns. (Neuman says, "I'd be run out of town on a rail if I took the prawns off the menu.") The restaurant also features a rotating "serie regional" that takes a more authentic look at a single cuisine, such as the Dominican Republic or Oaxaca, Mexico.

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SANGRIAS AND MOJITOS

Cocktail culture is big at Oba!, where the bar is a thriving part of the business. Little surprise that Sangria is a star here too, with a pomegranate version quite popular, made from red wine, pomegranate juice, brandy, simple syrup, orange juice, fruit and a splash of soda. "We also sell Mojitos like there's no tomorrow," featuring different varieties that include cucumber, guava and Serrano chile.

That hot chile also gets a shake with Absolut Mandarin and citrus juice for the Burning Orange, served up in a sugar-rimmed glass. Serrano is infused in vodka for the El Diablo Verde, blended with fresh mint and house-made sweet and sour. And Spain's classic Liquor 43 makes an appearance in their Manhattan 43, blended with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters.

AOC in West Hollywood, CA has become something of a standard-bearer for the contemporary small-plates scenario. So much so that reservations are hard to come by, but two bar areas are reserved for last-minute walk-ins. While local California products serve as a strong foundation to chef Suzanne Goin's menu, there are culinary influences from Spain, Italy and France, with a dash of curry here and an ode to Southern succotash there. One page of the menu is devoted to cheeses (domestic and imported), another to charcuterie, salads, meat and fish, the third to items from the wood-burning oven. All these selections can be sampled with different wines, thanks to the 50 selections on their by-the-glass list, served from the Cruvinet, a focal point in the modernly-appointed room.

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Whether drawing on traditional ingredients and dishes for inspiration, or more broadly on the convivial, social, drink-friendly custom of sharing small plates, tapas have clearly found a strong footing across this country. It's a great opportunity to infuse a little adventure into your menu, engage customers in creating their own dining experience and maybe get them to try something new. It will also offer a chance to showcase the growing availability of Spanish wines and sherries, and to get creative with tapas-inspired cocktails as well.

RELATED ARTICLE: Spain's Turn

Unlike most travelers to Spain, who simply revel in the food and wine while there and maybe throw together a Spanish-inspired dinner party when they get home, Steve Winston turned his experience into a business. The Spanish Table opened in Seattle in 1994, and then expanded with stores in Berkeley, CA; Santa Fe, NM and coming soon to Mill Valley, CA. All the stores sell wines, foods and cooking utensils imported from Spain. Winston says he's seen an incredible boom in interest in Spanish cuisine, and notes that wine imports from Spain have doubled since his store opened, jumping from 2 million cases to 4 million cases. "Everything was Italian for so long," Winston points out, "now we're seeing more salads made with sherry vinaigrette instead of balsamic." Also, Marcona almonds, manchego cheese, Serrano ham, and boquerones are increasingly showing up on mainstream contemporary menus, he says.--CN
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Author:Nims, Cynthia
Publication:Cheers
Article Type:Restaurant Review
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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