By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Centuries ago, bar owners in Spain and Portugal realized that if they served salty snacks to their patrons, said patrons were likely to drink more wine. And though, as far as I know, no one has ever accused a Spaniard of drinking too little, I've also never known a bar owner who could pass up an opportunity to make his clientele drink more.
In their original form, tapas were little servings of salted almonds (done at the 9th Door with nuts brought in from Marcona, Spain, and toasted in-house, but done better at Boulder's Frasca, where six dollars buys you a sampling of the best bridge mix ever -- perfectly spiced almonds, cashews and peanuts); olives (available at the 9th Door as aceitunas verdes alinadas); little croquettes of rice, meat, bread and mushrooms (which will be featured at Wahaltere's new place, drawing on the croquette di fungo of Venice); maybe a couple anchovies on salted bread (done best by Tyler Wiard at Mel's, who offers them as a special over a mustardy little bit of potato instead of bread, or at the 9th Door, where salty fingers of silvery fish are curled atop a cold omelette with sweet red peppers mounted on a round of crusty baguette); or a sliver of bacalao (not offered anywhere in Denver that I know of, but I don't imagine there's much demand for salt-cured codfish these days). Back in the day, these were all gratis to anyone who sat down in a Spanish barroom. But they were served on small plates, because no owner wanted to give away so much that his more impecunious customers could make a meal of such generosity. And the plates were always set on top of wine glasses, to keep the flies out.
(Although there's some argument as to the historic accuracy of this second assertion, it seems entirely sensible to me. After all, we're talking about a time before the advent of central air, when barrooms were kept as open to the breeze as possible, and with the breezes came the flies. Also, to a Spaniard -- to any chef, really -- an empty plate in a dining room is like a blank canvas in an art gallery -- both are wasted space just begging to filled with something.)
In America, this salty-snack-equals-increased-beverage-sales equation has been in use for a long time, taking the form of those sticky, communal bowls of nuts and pretzels placed on bar tops across the land; the chips and salsa that every Mexican joint, dive and hell-hole used to offer free to anyone who sat down; and the jars of pickled eggs that were once a fixture in the Eastern European barrooms of the industrial Northeast. The surprising thing is not that a tradition which began in one small area of the world thousands of miles away made the leap across the ocean so long ago (that just goes to prove my point that cooks have been stealing good ideas for as long as there have been good ideas to steal), but that it took otherwise bright capitalists so long to realize that -- with a little effort -- they could charge money for those same pretzels, chips and eggs.
A lot of money.
Hence, the recent explosion of places identified as tapas restaurants -- places that now collect serious green for stuff that once was given away free to stiffs and winos. Following fast on the success of a few of these restaurants, more traditional app-entrée-dessert houses made the switch to small-plate menus: Seeing that they could serve a regular entrée at one-third the portion size while still getting half the price was a no-brainer. And on top of this, being able to get three or four bucks for some spicy peanuts, housemade potato chips or a meatball? Frankly, I'm amazed that an entire generation of restaurateurs hasn't gone blind from the dollar signs in their eyes.
Lucky for us, there are still some good guys out there who understand that tapas are more than just shrunken mains. "These plates, they all come from somewhere," Wahaltere says. And he's right. A small plate -- whether you're calling it an amuse, cicchetti, tapas, an appetizer or (in the French) an entre -- has its own history and its own dynamic. For a small plate to work, it needs just as much care as any large plate, and it must also work in conjunction with other small plates on the menu. It ain't as easy as shaking down the rubes and collecting the money that falls out. Not when everyone and his brother is into the Tapas Thing.
Leftovers: 'Tis the season for summer menus to pop up all over the place. Two of these rollouts are particularly interesting, because they represent the first flights of chefs new to their posts.
At Strings (1700 Humboldt Street), executive chef Ed Kent (formerly of 240 Union), who took the place of Amy Vitale six weeks ago, has delivered a monster of a menu, adding about two dozen dishes to Strings' classic board of fare. Sautéed sweetbreads with lemon beurre noisette; oysters with lemon mignonette and tomato-horseradish gelée; a summer vegetable risotto with romesco sauce (that's getting trendy) and olive tapenade; half chickens with thyme and polenta -- I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.