Wrought-iron chandeliers, chalkboard menus hung on brick walls, black leather-look upholstery – the narrow dining room at Taberna Tapas captures the flavor of a Spanish tapas bar without being a slavish copy. The timeworn look of the brick and the patina of hardwood floors lend a vintage look to an establishment that has in fact been open only a year. It’s an inviting setting.
Or it would be, if there were any people here to bring the place to life. I’m dining solo the first time I visit, and for most of my meal I’m the only customer. Granted, it’s a weeknight. But Taberna Tapas is sitting in the middle of the hottest stretch of nightlife real estate in Durham. You could throw a paella pan and hit any number of bustling eateries, from Pizzeria Toro to Dame’s Chicken & Waffles. A decent throw might even reach Mateo.
Which, it occurs to me, may be part of the problem. Taberna Tapas and Mateo opened within weeks of each other last summer. Both are Spanish tapas bars, as it happens, and comparisons are inevitable. As anyone who has eaten at Mateo knows, to be compared with that stellar restaurant is not an enviable proposition.
But I’m here to assess Taberna Tapas on its own merits. Things get off to a promising start with serrano croquetas, fritters with a creamy, ham-flecked center encased in a satisfyingly crisp shell, garnished with ribbons of serrano ham and bright, peppery squiggles of pimenton sauce.
The croquetas – like pretty much everything at Taberna Tapas, according to owner Chris Estrada – are house-made. A self-taught cook, Estrada built the menu for his first restaurant on a foundation of childhood memories of dishes his Spanish grandmother cooked.
When it comes to the “Valencia” paella that follows, however, I’m afraid Estrada’s memory must be blurry. The ingredients – grilled shrimp, chicken, chorizo and vegetables on a bed of short-grained saffron rice – are more or less authentic for a classic paella valenciana. But execution is way off the mark, the most egregious sins being overcooked chicken and mushy rice with no hint of the trademark crusty bottom layer called socarrat.
According to Estrada, the paellas on the menu (other variations include mixed seafood, chicken with roasted peppers, and shrimp with peas and capers) are “deconstructed” versions.
“We cook the ingredients separately, then assemble the paellas when they’re ordered. We do make an authentic paella, but it takes longer to prepare. It’s a word-of-mouth thing, something that’s not listed on the menu.”
If ever there was a culinary example of the saying “hiding your lamp under a bushel,” this is it.
Returning for another visit on a Friday night, I’m encouraged to find a packed house (and glad that I made reservations). This time, I’ve enlisted the help of my daughter, whose year and a half in Spain qualifies her as my resident tapas expert. Our mission: a broader sampling of the tapas offering.
Once again, the meal starts off on a high note with flamenquin, a savory roulade of pork loin and serrano ham with a delicately crisp breading crust. Cut into thick slices, fanned out over a bed of roasted potatoes and drizzled with garlicky aioli, it’s a thoroughly delightful dish. It gets even better when Estrada, who divides his time between kitchen and dining room, appears unbidden with a small dish of piquant brava sauce, allowing us an unofficial taste of another tapas classic, patatas bravas.
The rest of the meal has its ups and downs – none quite as high as the flamenquin or croquetas, but none, mercifully, as low as the paella.
Crab-stuffed cod is a mixed bag, the fish fresh-tasting and properly cooked but the stuffing undistinguished.
Vegetable pisto, a sautéed medley of zucchini, crookneck squash, onion, green beans and cherry tomatoes, is tasty enough. But it bears no resemblance to the traditional pisto, a sort of Spanish ratatouille that usually contains eggplant.
Gambas a la plancha delivers the savory goods, though, in the form of spice-crusted shrimp, skewered and grilled, and served with more of that ubiquitous tapas plate companion, roasted potatoes. Braised beef short ribs, paired with tender spears of pencil asparagus, are served with a steak knife. It isn’t needed.
For dessert, a textbook flan and a dish of strawberries macerated in agave nectar both earn two thumbs up.
Now, if we could just talk Estrada into ditching those “deconstructed” paellas and replacing them with the real thing.
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