Taste: True Tapas
We have placed our orders at Amada, after lengthy debate about the more than 60 tapas possibilities, and are ready to explore the artistry of chef Jose Garces at a leisurely pace. But the kitchen has other ideas.
Within minutes, we’re facing a gridlock of small plates: Serrano ham and aged manchego cheese with sweet and savory condiments; bite-size bacalao croquettes topped with American sturgeon caviar; parmesan-dusted baby artichokes baked to melting creaminess; robust white bean stew with escarole and chorizo; pizza-like flatbread topped with fig jam, Spanish blue cheese and shredded duck. Shrimp arrives, still sizzling in its garlicky oil, to distract us from slender red piquillo peppers stuffed with sweet crabmeat, and from the miniature spinach-and-manchego-filled empanada that owes its ethereal lightness to hand-worked dough made from green plantains. We have almost overlooked the wonderful caper-flecked tuna spread that comes to every table with bread. The tendency to deliver too many dishes too quickly — easily remedied by asking for a slower pace — is the only flaw I found over three visits to this alluring earth-toned cocoon in Old City, a $1.1 million showcase for Garces, who is backed by two silent partners.
You won’t find a truer taste of Spain in Philadelphia. Garces is a credible interpreter of tapas tradition, having apprenticed for a year in sun-baked Andalusia after he completed culinary school. Before opening Amada, he returned to Spain, this time combing the northern provinces for inspiration and exceptional products. The olives, olive oil, smoked paprika, salt, sherry vinegar, cheeses and cured meats used at Amada are all produced in regions where tapas are a way of life.
There’s a glimmer of Starr influence here, from the cocktails bearing smirky names like Bad Education and All About My Mother to the warren of warm, espresso-colored rooms designed by Jun Aizaki, a former project manager for the Rockwell Group, who outfitted Starr restaurants Pod and the now-defunct Angelina. The clientele looks to be the same well-heeled, well-groomed crowd that frequents Buddakan and Barclay Prime. Here, they surge into a loud, lively front bar furnished with hanging hams, a gleaming slicer, and a row of rustic wood barrels that hold the base liquid for the house-made sangrias. The white version, which gets its amiable fruitiness from white grape juice, fresh pears and quince, is a better food partner than the cinnamon-spiced red. Beyond the open kitchen is a second bar and dining area, quieter and with moodier lighting, better suited to conversation.
The energy radiating from the open kitchen seems at odds with the cool demeanor of Garces, a confident 33-year-old of Ecuadorian ancestry, who scrutinizes every outbound plate. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as the food world’s next heartthrob: With his lush dark eyebrows and wide smile, the chef looks like a Latin Emeril. The name of his first solo venture honors his grandmother, his mamita amada, the loved one. She is also the author of the signature empanada, having shown Jose how to make the fine, flourless dough from boiled plantains put three times through a food mill, then kneaded by hand. The pickled artichokes, onions and piquillo peppers that surround this precious morsel are her grandson’s contribution.
Amada’s lengthy menu can be daunting for a first-time customer. The best and easiest introduction is the $45 prix fixe, five courses of tapas chosen by the chef. If two people order the tasting, 10 different plates come to the table, an extraordinary value. Tastings can be tweaked to accommodate those who avoid fish, pork or certain vegetables. For those who place no restrictions, the tasting typically begins with meat or cheese from the charcuterie section, followed by one or two traditional tapas, such as the garlic shrimp or the outstanding tortilla espanola, a pan-crisped potato and egg patty served with silky saffron aioli. You may try warm slices of mild chorizo seared on the plancha, a white-hot steel griddle, a perfect partner for chickpeas stewed with spinach and tomato, or a combination of warm fava beans and cool lima beans, dressed with sherry vinaigrette and topped with shavings of Idiazabal cheese. You’ll finish with one of the more substantial meat tapas, such as the roast pork over white beans with orange slices, or chicken breast poached in truffled cream, topped with a fried egg, or a special of the evening, such as braised short ribs with pureed calabaza squash.
If you order à la carte, three tapas will suffice for most people. There are really no bad choices, but the white bean stew, caldo gallego, is one of my favorites, as are the plancha-seared chorizo and the chickpeas. The plancha makes magic when lobster tails, lamb chops, foie gras, baby squid or wild mushrooms are seared quickly. The fried baby anchovies, which look like skinny french fries, have only the faintest fishy flavor, so meek that they could pass for potatoes.
There are two paellas sized for two, and a 24-ounce dry-aged prime rib-eye steak for two, but most customers are concentrating on tapas. Garces is, however, seeing a spike in orders for the roasted suckling pig, which serves four or more people and must be ordered in advance.
Desserts may not be possible after an extravagant tapas feast. Pastry chef Adriane Appleby keeps them light, and makes the sorbets and ice creams in-house. Try a scoop of crème fraîche ice cream paired with Valencia orange sorbet, a combination that will summon up remembrances of Creamsicles past. The only thing missing is the wooden stick.