Taste Reviews: Tapas, Too

Jose Garces follows the success of Amada with more tempting tapas.

SALTY AND SWEET. Rich and rustic. Silky and sensual. Aromatic and intense.

As I drive home after my first dinner at Tinto, the haunting flavors of northeast Spain and southwest France travel with me, the afterglow of a seductive meal. I replay it in my head: Bite-size toasts spread with blue cheese and black cherry jam, the backdrop for dusky nuggets of duck confit. Skewered lamb and eggplant wrapped with bacon, then seared on a super-hot griddle. Goat cheese melting over fava beans and pearl onions in a sweet-onion cream sauce, a vegetable side dish rich enough to list as a main course.

The chef behind it all is Jose Garces, who has exceeded the very high expectations raised by his brilliantly conceived first restaurant, Amada, in Old City. The breadth and complexity of Amada’s tapas menu was such that I wondered whether Garces could open a second Spanish restaurant without repeating himself. As it turns out, there is some repetition, and that’s not a bad thing.

Having chosen a location in condo-booming Center City west, Garces collaborated again with Amada’s designer, New York-based Jun Aizaki, who repeats the warm, substantial woods of Amada’s bar on a larger scale at Tinto to create a wine “cellar” a few steps up from street level. The restaurant’s wine stash is on display here, behind wooden grids that hold dozens of flickering votive candles. It’s a romantic spot, despite the busy bar and compelling open kitchen. The space was so crowded in the restaurant’s early weeks that Tinto took reservations not only for the high-top dining room tables, but also for the eight seats at the bar, a policy that was scrapped after much negative feedback. Downstairs, where you’d expect a cellar to be, Aizaki repeats the pillow-punctuated banquettes that give Amada’s large-scale dining rooms a cozy feel.

At Tinto, Garces builds the small-plates menu around specialties of the Basque region, where the Bay of Biscay provides the seafood, and the Pyrenees range supports the sheep and goats that provide meat and dairy. The favored pepper is the medium-hot espelette, which Garces uses liberally in its dried form — with crabmeat simmered in tomato-shellfish jus; to punch up a chilled lump crabmeat and avocado topping for one of the montaditos, the small open-faced sandwiches; and in the combination of country ham, fried egg and bell peppers known in both France and Spain as pipérade.

Like Amada, Tinto serves charcuterie and cheeses individually or as a plate; it makes a point of carrying Ossau Iraty, a Basque sheep’s-milk cheese; bleu de Basque; and Monte Enebro, a bold ash-covered goat cheese from Avila that goes well with sweet muscat wines.

For sheer visual impact, it’s hard to beat the brochetas — a very vertical presentation of skewered meats and seafood served upright in a trio of slender shot glasses half-filled with tasty customized sauces that can be spooned over the skewers, used for dunking, or knocked back like chasers. Moules Basquaise, in which out-of-shell mussels mingle with chorizo in a tomato-based pepper sauce, is another fetching sight when it arrives in a palm-size pot with the lid set aside, the better for you to inhale the glorious aroma. Alongside is a cup of golden french fries and lemon aioli for dipping — completely unnecessary, but very welcome.

A beef dish that combines slices of American Wagyu, soft-cooked egg and truffle consommé is astonishingly bland, and perilously drippy. Less costly, every bit as meaty, and much more lustily seasoned is the vegetable dish called hongos à la plantxa, a combination of griddle-seared wild mushrooms, shallots and potatoes tossed with garlic, lemon juice and parsley. The chilled white asparagus soup frothed with black truffles is worth ordering for its garnish: a luscious pair of deep-fried, soft-centered, pistachio-crusted artichoke croquettes.

Service hadn’t yet found a rhythm during my review visits. Servers pressured us to order more than we wanted, and to add a fourth item to dishes that presented in threes. (We resisted both attempts.) The hard sell is a turn-off, and out of place at a fine restaurant like Tinto. Although everyone was congenial, servers and food runners are off-beat, as we had difficulty getting drinks at the same time as food, and vice versa. Garces takes pains to credit the large staff needed to support this detail-­oriented operation: Every staffer is listed by name on the printed menu, including the bussers and dishwashers.

Gâteau Basque is the flagship of all Basque desserts, served here as a trio of ­madeleine-like cakes with pastry cream and cherries. An even better choice is the ice-cold, slightly tangy goat’s-milk mousse, which tastes like ice cream made just for grown-ups, served with olive oil caramel, orange blossom jelly, orange segments and cooked sweet potato. I’ll follow the chef’s lead and give credit where it’s due: The ­dessert-makers are pastry chef Adriane Appleby and chef de cuisine William Zuchman.

As much as I enjoy the flash and flamenco of Amada, the intimate scale and mood of Tinto is exactly the right alternative. We are fortunate indeed to have two Jose Garces restaurants competing for our attention.

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