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Bit by Bit

Tapas the town: Triana can look better than it tastes.
Anna Newell

Stepping off the crowded Pearl Street Mall and into Triana is like burying your face in a flamenco dancer's best dress or jumping into a pile of autumn leaves. Fiery reds and oranges explode in this small space. The ceiling is painted black, a dark sky but for the exposed pipes and ductwork crawling everywhere. Shallow, midnight-blue booths line the room, and a warm glow cast by recessed lights climbs the walls like flame. The walls themselves are cut stone that abruptly gives way to brick; the floors change from cracked tile to hardwood halfway through the dining room. Sensuous, curving iron fixtures share space with shining steel and rigid aluminum bar stools. Heavy cement tabletops hold chunky silverware and delicate, blue-striped plates. When seen from certain angles, framed properly or taken in altogether with one long look, the place can be really beautiful.

Or it can seem jarring and discordant, with stone and brick butting up against each other, patterns fighting patterns, the soft tones of wood and leather scratched at by cold steel. Depending entirely on the day, tricks of light, your mood and your tastes, the room can be smooth, flowing and organic -- or bungled and harsh.

Unfortunately, the menu is the same way.

The name "Triana" refers to a barrio in Seville, but while the tapas-heavy menu reflects the flavors of Spanish cuisine, it also borrows liberally from a half-dozen other cultures. Executive chef Hosea Rosenberg inherited some of that menu from James Mazzio -- the top toque who founded Triana in September 2000 and moved on about six months ago -- and he's still struggling to find his element among a world of options. Some dishes drift, their flavors rootless. Others show flashes of pure acetylene brilliance. A couple I'm still trying to forget.

Midway through my first meal at Triana, Pippi (one of my regular partners and a specialist in Boulder dining) began to bitch. "These suck," she said, throwing the gnawed ends of three french fries back into the brown-paper cone in which they're served. "You know me: Put a potato in front of me in any form and I'll eat it. Mashed, baked, fried, I don't care, but I'm a potato purist, and these --" she pushed the curvy little iron stand that held the cone upright away with her fingertips and made a yuck face like a kid forced to eat beets "-- are awful."

Triana is known for its fries. They've won awards, including one from this newspaper. So I told Pippi that she was wrong. The fries were not bad, I explained, just different. Cut skin-on and thin, they're deep-fried, then sprinkled with sugar in addition to the usual salt while still hot so that the sugar caramelizes and lends a touch of sweetness to the humble spuds. I reminded her that she's also a snob, inherently suspicious of anyone trying to do anything unusual with food, and opinionated to a fault.

"Which doesn't change the fact that these are awful," she said. "Try some." I did as she continued. "And what makes you think that me being an opinionated snob is any different than you being an opinionated snob?"

"Because I get paid for it. You just get taken out for a free dinner once in a while."

While she sulked, I kept chewing. After one mouthful, I was convinced that her tastebuds were being led astray by her mistrust of new things. The shoestrings were wonderful: salty, sweet, crunchy and strange. They came with a Spanish romesco -- a spicy, dandied-up peanut butter made with almonds and red pepper -- that was good, if a little greasy, which meant it didn't stick to the still-hot fries. I went for a second handful, munching happily while we waited for our next flight of tapas. I grabbed a third and was suddenly less charmed. I picked at a few more fries, then pushed the cone back toward her, the stand scraping against the cement tabletop.

"These," I announced, "are not so good."

"I know."

"Actually, they're kind of awful. Like something between a french fry and a funnel cake. And burned, now that I think about it."

"I know."

"People should really learn to leave their potatoes alone."

She gave me her "I told you so" look, which I hate, and we let Triana's famous shoestrings cool at the edge of the table, untouched for the rest of the meal. Interesting for one bite, amusing for two, these fries just don't have the chops to stand center stage.

Pippi and I grazed through dinner with a couple little plates followed by a couple more, then a couple more. Wanting to eat like this -- which is the informal, fun and proper way to make a run at a tapas menu -- seemed to confuse our waitress, though, and she kept trying to take our menus away. Had we been hitting the sangria (which is excellent, strong and cheap) any harder, this could have made for an ugly scene, but since I do this job anonymously, I try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Then again, in Boulder, everyone is so concerned with how cool they look that no one ever gives me a second glance. I'm pretty sure I could show up at any hot spot on Pearl Street, raving and naked, with RESTAURANT CRITIC written in Sharpie across my chest and my hair on fire, and go entirely unnoticed. And that suits me fine.  

The chef's tapas special that night was black fig, Spanish almond and Cabrales cheese wrapped in Serrano ham with a port-wine reduction. It sounded wonderful, and was -- to a point. Figs are good. Figs and Serrano (which is sort of a Spanish prosciutto, salt-cured, sweet and sliced thin as a dream) are even better. Tuck a salty little Spanish almond inside and add a drizzle of grape-juice-sweet port reduction, and this tapa would be perfect.

But the cheese killed it.

There were four bites of the chef's special on the plate. I put one in my mouth, and the ham seemed to melt into the sweet crunch of the fig. The almond added texture and a rasp of salt on the tongue; the reduction was a high note of syrupy zing that crowned all the flavors perfectly. And then came the Cabrales -- a real bruiser with a thick, sour funk like Gorgonzola, only stronger and more earthy -- rumbling along like a garbage truck. It rolled right over the more delicate tastes and pushed aside that beautiful balance, leaving nothing behind but a wreck of an aftertaste.

Nothing can screw up a dish more completely than a young chef with something to prove. I know this from bitter experience. I've been that young chef. Restraint and precision are the hallmarks of confidence in a kitchen. A good, experienced chef -- one who really has his legs under him -- has a sense of when enough is enough. He has faith in his ingredients and their unique voices. But when a less self-assured, less confident chef isn't sure he's getting his point across clearly, he tends to layer flavor upon flavor rather than trusting in his talents to craft a powerful, individual experience. With tapas, which are supposed to be tiny showcases of single, strong elements, this shotgun approach ends up tasting like timidity.

The thing is, Rosenberg is no slouch behind the burners, and he didn't exactly come here wet behind the ears. He did time under both Wolfgang Puck and Kevin Taylor (as executive chef at Dandelion) before taking the wheel at Triana. Maybe that's why I was more disappointed than I might have been about the food I got: I know the restaurant is capable of so much more. I wanted to love this place. I like the look of the menu, I like the space and I liked Rosenberg (whom I talked to a couple of months back for Bite Me), so being served something muddled, mumbling and confused meant more to me than just getting an imperfect plate. It pissed me off, because over and over again, Rosenberg's kitchen seemed to be getting in its own way. There was a salad of baby red potatoes that was an unmitigated disaster of undercooked potatoes and egg, and a watery caper-and-dill aioli that was bitter, thin and nasty. Even more disappointing -- because it had the potential for greatness -- was the stuffed-quail entree, with two birds done perfectly, crusted with salt and pepper, cooked gently so that they were tender and plump, and packed with pine nuts, apples and chorizo -- which would have made for a nice combination if the sausage hadn't been as dull as a brick. What ruined this was a chunky mirepoix of celery and carrot that had been carelessly added to the stuffing, contributing nothing to its taste and actually distracting from the main flavors.

Still, the pan sauce in which those quails swam was a deep and flavorful jus, strong but not overpowering, seamlessly wedded to every other ingredient on the plate. Little flashes of brilliance like this gave me faith in this kitchen, the feeling that, given a little more time to settle in and settle down, Rosenberg will be working wonders. He certainly did with the bacon-wrapped pork loin I tried on another visit. It came to the table a perfect medium-rare and rich with juices, served beneath a sweet compote of apple, fig and Calvados brandy and over a small mountain of white beans, bacon scraps and that same carrot and celery mixthat had ruined the quail. Here, though, it was in harmony with the other flavors: mellowing, smoothing and connecting each facet of the dish and lending a solid body to the sauce that formed in a fragrant puddle at the bottom. And on the dessert menu, I found a molten- chocolate cupcake dusted with sugar, served with macerated strawberries, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce that was so unbelievably good that I'll never look at the cellophane-wrapped Hostess variety the same way again.  

Ordering off the tapas menu on another visit, I tried a simple white-bean purée with rosemary and garlic that worked magic simply because it was left to stand on its own. The purée was smooth, with a depth and solidity to its meaty flavor that spoke of exactly the kind of confidence I wanted to see coming from Triana's kitchen. This was the plate that convinced me that there's a style and a talent living in the back of this house, fighting to come out front and introduce itself to the customers.

Earth, fire, water and sky. Stone and iron. Brick and wood. If you've got the eye for it, Triana's elements meld elegantly. In moments and in glances, the juxtaposition is rather striking. It comes together in the strangest of ways. And the same thing can happen here on the plate. Sure, there are rough edges, junctures at which tastes collide like a car wreck, grating combinations too fussed over to seem natural or whole. But the kitchen's coming along. It has talent, skill and a sense of where things are headed. Now, all that's needed is confidence that the food has something to say -- and enough trust to get out of the way.


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