I’m beginning to hate tapas.
There. I said it.
OK, I guess I don’t hate the concept of tapas, I just hate how they’re typically served here in DC. My experience with highly-rated DC tapas places has shown me that the only thing they have in common with their Spanish originators is the word “tapas” and food served on small plates. After that, you’re left with something that actively accentuates some of the worst attributes of the DC restaurant scene: high prices, indifferent service, and rushing you out the door.
Cy and I got a crash course in original tapas in Barcelona two years ago, and it was an eye-opener. There you can sit at a table and order tapas off the menu, or sit at the bar and point to what you want as it is displayed there, enticingly, before you. The table menu is more extensive, but the difference serves a purpose. If you’re just there for a quick bite, sit at the bar. You’ll get a plate with the things you want on it and you can eat it as you please. If you’re at a table you can expect a more leisurely meal, and you can ask for your dishes to come out in a particular order. And you’ve got the seat for as long as you want it, either table or bar.
The first thing you’re told when you sit down in a DC tapas place is that the dishes will come out as they’re ready. In reality, this means that the restaurant is controlling the pace of your meal. That always happens, of course, but in most restaurants everyone at the table will get his or her first course at the same time, and then the main course in the same way. You more or less all eat together.
Not so with tapas, which have a little more tyranny involved. The small-plate idea supposedly encourages sharing, and that works if everyone wants to try everything. (Of course, tapas places could also encourage sharing by sizing and pricing the plates by the number of people sharing them, but they don’t seem to have thought of it…) You can’t always share, though — whether through likes and dislikes or dietary restrictions, you may end up with more or less segregated plates. This means that some people at the table will be eating and the others will be watching them eat.
Your server may tell you that careful ordering can help with the pace of the dishes arriving at your table. Unfortunately, what comes when is mostly determined by what people at other tables are ordering at the same time you are and how busy the place is. If there are a lot of orders for things that require individual cooking, then all bets are off as to when your particular cooked-to-order small plate will arrive.
At this point you’re probably thinking I’m a total grump. So what if things come when they come? You’re there with friends, having a few drinks, chatting away. All true. But for a party of four and 12 to 16 dishes arriving, that means 12 to 16 interruptions of your conversation to announce the arrival of the next morsel instead of just two or three. The servers generally don’t note who ordered what, and after selecting three or four different plates each it’s often hard to remember which ones go to whom — particularly since they can arrive at any time, in any sequence. If the tables were big enough to hold four diners and an additional 12 plates of food, then it wouldn’t be an issue because the food could be put down in an open spot without juggling plates. That would mean fewer tables, though, and we all know that’s not going to happen.
The pacing brings up another issue: in my experience a table full of small plates encourages quicker eating and less conversation. Particularly when you’ve got a number of dishes served hot and you want to eat them before they cool off too much. Let’s face it, these are generally not low-fat items. That’s why they taste so good, but they also look infinitely less appealing as they cool and congeal on the plate. At least to me. So I tend to put my head down and shovel it in.
After wolfing down your food, you might expect a little time to catch up on the conversation you couldn’t have while eating. Well, then you’d better order dessert or a lot of coffee or drinks, because it quickly becomes apparent that the ambiance is less welcoming if you don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need to turn over tables. But here’s the problem. These establishments want to be considered fine dining, and they’re priced accordingly. I have no quibble with the price of the actual food, since it has been excellent at the 10-12 DC tapas-style places I’ve tried (four of them explicitly Spanish food, the others are small-plate variations on other cuisines.) Here’s where I draw the line, though: if your small plates are going to add up to more than $30 per person without the drinks, you should have the right to an experience beyond what you get at a better fast food place. (I’m thinking of something like Pain Quotidien, where you’re served at your table but not encouraged to linger.) But the restaurants appear to want to have it both ways with a faster pace and higher price. To my mind, not exactly the most customer-friendly environment. Yes, I know there are people waiting. Really, though, 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hours is not a lot of time for dinner for four.
Finally, there’s a wine issue. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I really enjoy trying different wines with food. And you’d think that maybe the variety of food on a tapas menu in combination with a varied wine list could make for a great evening. In reality, though, the variety of food and not knowing when or in what order it will all appear makes selecting a single bottle for the table difficult. Ordering wines by the glass can help, but ideally you’ll want glasses of different wines in front of you before the food comes — which leaves even less room on the table. I’d love to see a tapas restaurant that offered two-ounce pours of wine at reduced prices, even if it was from a more limited selection than the list of wines by the glass. But I suspect the lack of something like that is what drives people to give up and order sangria. Not that the sangria can’t be delicious, but it’s almost always better as an apéritif than to drink with the meal.
In thinking about this over the past few days, I’ve come up with a few hints to take back a little control of your tapas-style meal experience. No guarantees that they’ll work, but you might as well try. You’re paying for it, after all.
1) Cold dishes come out quickly, so everyone should order one. That way you’ll be sure to have something for everyone to eat right away.
2) Ditto for the cheeses, which usually can also be shared.
3) Any of the hot dishes described as slow-cooked or braised will probably come out ahead of the other hot dishes, since it’s already prepared and requires little finishing. Likewise for stew-y things, like some of the sausage dishes with beans or lentils.
4) To their credit, most places send deep-fried food out early and in my experience it’s fresh and delicious. So your croquetas will also arrive on the early side.
5) The longest wait comes for things that appear to be cooked to order or that involve searing. They will usually come out last and not necessarily all together for your table.
6) Something I’m going to try the next time I go to one of these places is to create my own tasting pours by ordering three or four wines by the glass and asking for extra water glasses so I can share the wines. It’ll mean less room on the table, but it’s a lot more civilized.
One thing Cy and I encountered in Spain is the kind of little place that serves only cold or room-temperature tapas. They’re all made ahead and each one sits on a slice of untoasted baguette for easy handling. (My blogger friend Sue rightly complains that Italian-style bruschetta with toasted bread is nearly impossible to eat without spilling food all over, so this works a lot better.) They also have platters of salads and marinated grilled vegetables. So you can build a plate easily depending on what you want, no sharing required.
I guess there’s more of a blasé attitude toward food safety, since most of these dishes appear to be sitting out uncovered and unrefrigerated. That’s probably why we don’t see them here. It would take expensive refrigerator cases to let customers see the food they way they can over there, and part of the fun is perusing the selections and choosing.
But there’s nothing to stop you from doing something like this at home, especially for a summer party. You can get all the parts ready and assemble the tapas just before people arrive. A couple of things they all seem to have in common are a slice of hard-boiled egg on top of the baguette piece and strips or squares of roasted piquillo peppers. I think the egg slices help keep the bread from getting soggy while the tapas sit around, so it’s optional to use them if you’re going to assemble and eat the tapas right away. But I like the flavor they add. The piquillo peppers come in a can or jar, generally whole. They’re not hard to find but if you can’t locate them you can use regular roasted red peppers (although the piquillos have more flavor).
Then top the bread/egg/peppers with a couple of simple things. The easiest topping starts with a can or jar of very good Spanish tuna in olive oil. It’s expensive, but it goes a long way. Carefully remove the chunk of tuna and pat it dry. Using a very sharp knife, cut the chunk into 1/4-inch thick slices that fit on the bread. Drizzle a dressing made from lemon juice, olive oil, capers, parsley, salt, and pepper on top and sprinkle with a pinch of smoked paprika.
The second topping is a variation on the shrimp with garlic, lemon, and olive oil that you find in nearly every tapas restaurant. This seems like it would be a lot of work and custom-cooked but you can make something like it with pre-cooked shrimp. First you heat chopped garlic in olive oil to flavor it and tame the garlic, then once it’s cooled add lemon juice, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and the shrimp and let them sit for at least an hour. You can start them way ahead and refrigerate them, but be sure to let them come to room temperature before serving — really good olive oil will clump up like butter in the fridge.
Since both of these are seafood and have a little acidity, you can serve our Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13) and not worry about another wine. It’s crisp, fruity, and a little floral, and also great with bread and cheese if you’re looking for something even quicker. But don’t rush. What good is bypassing the tyranny of the restaurant if you’re just going to duplicate it at home? Relax and enjoy yourselves, and rest assured you’re being more Spanish than any DC tapas place.
Serves 12, two of each per person as an appetizer
For the tuna tapas:
Two 6-ounce cans or jars (more or less) high-quality whole-piece Spanish tuna in olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained, and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Freshly-ground black pepper
Carefully remove the chunks of tuna from the cans or jars and dry them gently with paper towels. Using a small sharp knife, slice the tuna chunks 1/4- inch thick and set aside. Whisk the lemon juice, olive oil, capers, and parsley together in a small bowl and set aside. (Both the tuna and capers are salty, so you don’t need salt at this point. You can add a little pepper to the dressing if you like.)
For the shrimp tapas:
1 pound large chilled cooked peeled and deveined shrimp, sized 20 – 30 shrimp per pound
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 teaspoon finely-grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Large pinch of smoked paprika
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Put the olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes in a small saucepan and set the pan over low heat. After about 5 minutes the garlic will start to sizzle. Watch carefully, and when it just starts to get a little golden, pour the contents into a large bowl, add the paprika and let the mixture cool (If you add the paprika before heating, you can’t see the color of the garlic). Whisk in the lemon juice, parsley, and some salt and pepper, then add the shrimp and toss to coat them all. Let the shrimp sit at room temperature for an hour, stirring occasionally. If you make them further ahead, let them sit in the fridge, covered. Take them out an hour before assembly so they can come back to room temperature.
48 baguette slices, 1/4 – 1/2-inch thick
48 slices of hard-boiled egg, made using an egg slicer, about 6 eggs
48 one-inch squares of roasted piquillo peppers
48 toothpicks (optional)
Small pitted green or black olives (optional)
To assemble: Set the baguette slices on platters, and top them first with a slice of egg then a slice of pepper. For the tuna tapas, top half with a slice of tuna. Mix the dressing again and drizzle it lightly over the tuna pieces. Top each with a pinch of coarse salt. For the shrimp tapas, top the other half with a shrimp and divide any leftover marinade among the pieces. To finish, you can top with an olive and skewer the whole piece with a toothpick if you like.