Not quite ready for winter? Close your eyes and think of summer, Spain and tapas, the lively Spanish bar bites.
The calendar says it is almost November, but I am in deep denial. Restaurant menus are turning to heavier fare, but I still crave summer and sunshine. And when I think of summer and sunshine, I think of Spain and tapas.
Tapas -- the traditional Spanish bar snacks -- aren't exactly new, but I've just rediscovered them, and it's like falling in gastronomic love all over again. I recently took a tapas tour of four local eateries -- Solera, El Meson, La Bodega and Babalu. Each is very different, but all are recommended.
A lot of my dining experiences lately have been anticlimactic: a brilliant starter course, followed by a long slog through a big and boring piece of meat or fish. By the time the dessert menu comes out, my eyes glaze over.
But it doesn't have to be that way, and the Spaniards figured that out a long time ago. The tapas I recall from travels in Spain were often very simple dishes full of lively flavors: little portions of olives, or tortilla (in Spain, a potato omelet), or perhaps some deep-fried baby squid. In Spain, tapas are often offered free, or included in the price of a drink. While nobody is offering free tapas locally, compared to the cost of a traditional three-course restaurant dinner, a dinner of tapas can be a great value.
Tapas at La Bodega
The most traditional of the local tapas spots appears to be La Bodega, at Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue S. in south Minneapolis; plates of olives, or cheese, or jamon de Serrano (cured, uncooked ham), and simple plates of grilled eggplant, olive oil, mint and garlic, or chipirones rellenos (squid stuffed with bread crumbs, pine nuts and raisins). Most plates are priced from $4.75 to $7.50.
La Bodega also has an Italian menu of pizzas and pasta, and a few Italian dishes do sneak onto their tapas list, including a wonderful rendition of caponata, the savory ragout of stewed eggplant, celery, green olives and peppers. Portions are generous, and wine deals make La Bodega an exceptionally good value: On Sunday and Thursday evenings, when two people order a minimum of $15 per person, they get a complimentary bottle of Chianti or pinot grigio; on Monday and Tuesday evenings, most of the bottles are half-price.
Thursday nights from 9 to 11, there's a complimentary buffet and ladies drink free. (I asked, "If you give away the food and the drink how do you make money?" The owner replied, "After 11, they keep drinking.") The build-your-own paella is also a good value: The basic dish of seasoned rice costs $8 per person for two or more, and you can add your choice of other ingredients, including shrimp, lobster, chicken and sausage for $2 to $4 per ingredient.
Stylish at Solera
The tapas at Solera, in downtown Minneapolis, reflect the restaurant's stature as one of the Twin Cities' most stylish and sophisticated dining spots: Portions tend to be smaller, flavors more delicate and prices a bit higher. I've never seen anything in a bodega in Spain that's quite as sophisticated as Solera's red pepper flan with avocado and baby greens, or poached foie gras with tomato chutney and sherry.
The tapas menu was recently reorganized into three sections: seasonal, traditional and tapas nuevas, "modern tapas inspired by the cuisines of Spain." Each section offers a tasting menu: eight different plates for $29 per person, available for two or more. It's probably a good value if you add up the a la carte prices, but I prefer the freedom to pick and choose. My favorites included the traditional mushrooms a la plancha with poached egg, a rich sherry-glazed pork belly with gigandes beans and morcillo, a pork blood sausage.
Solera offers reduced prices on drinks and tapas (as low as $2 a plate) during Happy Hour -- weekdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m., and again from 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Rustic selection at El Meson
El Meson, five blocks south of La Bodega at 35th and Lyndale in Minneapolis, is one of my favorite neighborhood hangouts, but until recently I had never paid much attention to the tapas menu. Chef Hector Ruiz, who has worked at top local restaurants and trained at the three-star Lucas Carton in Paris, offers a rustic selection ranging from montaditos (miniature sandwiches of Serrano ham, roasted peppers and Majon cheese) to gambas al ajillo (shrimp in a garlicky white wine sauce).
Be sure to try the chipirones: baby squid stuffed with scallop salad, served atop grilled bread, which soaks up a delicious sauce of saffron and lime butter. Other highlights include the cantapalitos, little grilled chorizo sausages tossed with artichoke hearts and onions, and the Serrano, asparagus wrapped in Serrano ham, with a goat cheese filling. Most plates are priced from $4.95 to $7.95. El Meson's wines by the bottle, mostly from Spain, Argentina and Chile, are half-priced Sunday through Thursday.
Unique choices at Babalu
The list of tapas at Babalu, the lively Latin restaurant and nightclub on North Washington in Minneapolis, is much more limited than at the other restaurants, but it offers some unique New World variations on the tapas theme, including grilled marlin tacos al pastor with a chile verde salsa, and platanos machos (sweet plantains stuffed with choice of queso fresco or black beans and bathed in a lively mole sauce). Also highly recommended are the almejas a la marinera, a cast-iron pot brimming with tender Manila clams in a garlicky white wine sauce. Happy Hour, Monday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m., features reduced prices on drinks, and selected appetizers for half-price.