Seductive tapas bar captures diners' hearts through their stomachs

Aesthetically, this 22,000-square-foot tapas factory, one of the anchors of the re-revitalized Church Street Station entertainment complex, is as grand and enticing a restaurant you’ll find in the city. The ambience, rich in fine details and accentuated by a gleaming bar, tile mosaics, sumptuous lighting and a cathedral ceiling, would’ve had me quoting Shakespeare, but my memory (or lack thereof) foiled a display of frivolous pretense. For what it’s worth, the passage I was groping for – Her beauty makes this vault a feasting presence full of light – is a fitting one. This Spanish beauty of a restaurant will ultimately capture your heart, but not before seducing your stomach.

The advantage in dining at a tapas joint (particularly one offering a whopping selection of 100 small plates from which to choose) is that you’re sure to find something you like. A miss will most surely be countered by a hit, with plenty of in-betweens thrown in for good measure. Ceviche doesn’t reinvent the tapas experience, but what it does, it does relatively well.

Sampling ceviche, a delicacy originating in the former Spanish colony of Peru, was practically a foregone conclusion, and the ceviche de atun ($11), a martini-glass assemblage of citrus-marinated tuna, red peppers, jalapeños, garlic and onions, made a cool introduction to the meal. Nothing awe-inspiring, but the dish was tangy, refreshing and had just enough kick to jump-start the affair. Our waiter assured us the Iberico ham ($8.50) was top-quality, and while I couldn’t confirm if the jamón was solely acorn-fed, my dining companions both agreed the thinly shaved meat, served on a crunchy baguette and topped with a triangle of aged manchego cheese, was melt-in-your-mouth perfect.

Another dish that had us cooing was the wonderfully gooey portobello relleno ($8). Wilted spinach, shallots and manchego stuffed the corpulent ’shroom, with contrasting brandy and sherry cream sauces providing a sop-worthy complement. The floral notes and fruity finish of a glass of velvety-smooth Wrongo Dongo Monastrell 2006 ($5.60) proved to be an even better complement to the tapas vegetales.

But not everything was wine and roses, a pointed example being when our accommodating (though somewhat forgetful) waiter mistakenly served us a plate of aromatic salmon a la gaditana ($9). The fish was remarkably bland, and the accompanying saffron sauce with leeks was equally insipid. Bacalao Bilbaina ($11) looked promising, the plump loin of cod glistening with olive oil and garnished with garlic cloves and fire-roasted peppers, but the flavor gave me an idea as to what a wet, chewy sock might taste like.

Luckily, I was able to cleanse my palate with oxtail (I don’t get to say that too often). Fall-off-the-bone tender rabo de toro ($11) is slowly braised in a red wine reduction and served atop cushiony potatoes: absolutely delicious, and the hit dish of the evening. Skewers of nicely seasoned chorizo were the hit of the banderillas mixtas ($8.50), which also came lanced with chewy tenderloin and ho-hum chicken, though repeated dips in the garlic aioli elevated each meaty bite.

Both desserts we sampled were outstanding. The creamy-drunk tres leches meringue cake with fresh berries ($7.50) won over more sweet-tooths than the trilogia de chocolates ($8), a moussey drum of white, dark and milk chocolates. Just about ready for a siesta, I ordered a double espresso, and while the brew did its part to recharge, the taste fell flat and the crema was nonexistent.

On the way out, I took a gander at the cold tapas bar, a centerpiece fixture that drew my eyes upward to the dangling gams of hams. Each lovely shank vied for the attention of patrons already bedazzled by the vault’s feasting presence.


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