Taste: Tapas Today
Northern Liberties is looking more like Old City every day, as new condos gobble up
Northern Liberties is looking more like Old City every day, as new condos gobble up vacant lots. The next logical step would seem to be a wave of glam restaurant-lounges. With its flashy pedigree, Bar Ferdinand could have launched the glitzkrieg — owner Owen Kamihira has designed for Stephen Starr; chef Blake Joffe is a veteran of Starr kitchens. Instead, this new tapas bar is a model of low-key cool, at a sensible price point. It's a fun spot for a spontaneous meal, more akin to Standard Tap than to Amada.
For this very personal project, Kamihira sets aside the pumped-up visuals that are his signature and turns our attention to intimate details. Hand-wrought mosaics with a bull motif, light shades draped with lacy black mantillas, and a bar ringed romantically with long-stem dried roses provide the backdrop for a scene that's deafening during prime time, but so mellow in the early evening that some customers bring their babies. The bar is a merry confluence of graying hipsters and pert iPodders wearing flannel and denim.
Owner and chef let their respective taste memories of Spain shape the menu. Kamihira lived for a time in Andalusia, while Joffe's frame of reference is Basque-influenced San Sebastian. Their collaboration produces tapas that are simple and rustic — not necessarily a bad thing — but some dishes lack the seasoning and presentation nuances that would take them to very good. Some of the best come from the deep-fryer: Classic bite-size croquettes filled with salt cod or Serrano ham are ideal bar food, as are the empanadas filled with rabbit and sheep's-milk cheese, or bacon and dates. Finely diced cucumber and peppers add crunch to chilled seafood that marinates in its cooking broth, tasty but in need of more spice. Fried capers and an ice-cold roasted tomato slice contrast effectively with warm seared octopus, a pretty arrangement marred by the pre-fab texture of a commercial puff pastry shell.
Haphazard service and a billing error are worth noting, but shouldn't keep anyone from running with this amiable bull.