Las Ramblas leaves our critic wistful for Spanish tapas
The center of the culinary universe seems to have shifted. It’s no longer Paris or New York but Spain — and not just because trail-blazing chefs such as Ferran Adriá are fiddling with foams and forming agar-agar into unaccustomed shapes. With his eponymous restaurant and contemporary take on traditional Basque foods, Juan Mari Arzak has made San Sebastián a gastro-tour destination, just to cite one example, and once-staid Barcelona is crawling with cafés and restaurants worthy of estrellas from the venerable Michelin Guide.
|Las Ramblas, in the River Walk’s Hotel Contessa, does vegetable well but is hit-and-miss elsewhere.|
All of this action hasn’t escaped the notice of enterprising Americans, of course. Spanish cookbooks are heating up bookstore shelves, tapas are on everyone’s tongue, and Spanish-style restaurants are popping up like setas. Even in San Antonio. There’s just one problem with all this new-found attention: Many of the chefs casting their menus in Castellano have never set foot in Spain. There oughtta be a law.
Las Ramblas in the Hotel Contessa on the River Walk takes its titular cue from Barcelona’s famous promenade, long considered the preeminent place in the world to take a tapas crawl. That ritual is defined by moving from bar to bar in the early evening, sipping sherry, beer, or wine and consuming copious quantities of small plates (“tapar” refers to covering one’s glass to discourage annoying insects from taking a nip of your drink) of everything from smoked almonds to skewered squid, in preparation for a much later dinner. (I rarely make it past the tapas.)
As a stay-seated kind of operation, Las Ramblas casts its Tapas Variadas menu in much bigger terms. Stuffed Spanish olives with manchego cheese and warm artisan bread probably come closest to hitting the modest, original mark, and if you think of the albondigas of veal and pork in a cilantro-tomato sauce (cilantro is not, by the way, a common Spanish ingredient) as individual pieces, they, too, might qualify. Champiñones en Jerez, served in a small casserole, would top two or three glasses, but they’re at once simple and satisfying despite a confusion over terms: a Madeira demi-glaze is indicated — and appreciated for the slight sweetness it lends to the smoky-earthy mushrooms — but Madeira is not sherry as Jerez would seem to imply.
The Mar y Montaña platter, a significant serving of black mussels and lusty longaniza sausage spangled with slivered carrot, fennel, and onion, goes well beyond traditional tapas to almost-entrée size. So far so good, but there’s one fatal flaw: The mussels are served in a mini, metal paella pan, and the acid contributed by sherry (I assume it’s sherry) and lemon activates an unpleasant metallic taste. I refrained from the usual sopping of sauce for that reason, but the olive-studded bread was too soft to take the abuse anyway.
The same paella pan serves as a plate for the asado del día, prepared on the restaurant’s open rotisserie, and here it works well enough, although the pan’s high lip makes it difficult to cut the asado. (Yes, there is a paella Valenciana, the real reason the pan was developed for outdoor cooking.) Leg of lamb was my lot one night, and there was a decent amount of it. Trouble was, overcooked and served with a sauce dominated by dry mint, the dish was boring. This is a universal plea to all chefs: Forget mint with lamb. Most especially mint jelly, of course, but the dried stuff, too. Garlic is fine, rosemary too. But basta con la menta.
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The lamb’s accompanying garlic mashed patatas, on the other hand, were excellent, and the side of confetti-colorful sautéed vegetables was even better. In fact, Las Ramblas seems to do verduras very well. An order of Mediterranean pinchitas, or brochettes, might just make a convert of the determined carnivore with its artful combination of big, flavorful olives, artichoke hearts, and mozzarella wrapped in sundried tomato. The notion of wrapping the cheese in sturdy, sundried tomato before skewering is a good one; the tomato acts as an insulator during the grilling process. (It also gets a little chewy, but who cares?) The package would be a good one alone, but the kitchen doesn’t stop there: It’s served over some almost-sweet sautéed spinach placed, in turn, atop aromatic arroz verde. And then the whole thing is drizzled with a balsamic glaze. Well, why not?
Barcelona is also evoked at Las Ramblas by the twisted, tile-encrusted column that dominates the dining room; it’s one of the baroque signatures of architect Antonin Gaudí of Sagrada Familia cathedral and Parque Güel fame. Faux Picasso and pseudo Botero paintings provide other decorative touches, but are put to shame by Gini Garcia’s handsome blown-glass pieces. Suprisingly, Spanish wines are not as well represented as they might be, especially by the glass, but the Osborne Solaz tempranillo can be counted on to deliver tight and bracing fruit with good berry flavors.
Orange should have been the fruit flavor suffusing a flan de naranja, but there was almost none of it. The flan was far too sturdy for starters, its citrus-mint crème anglaise contributed little flavor, and the florid fruit compote and chocolate drizzles seemed to be trying to divert attention from the main event. Take a tip from Spain here: Simple, intense flavors are frequently best. Take a trip to Spain next.
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