The reign of Spain

Posted on 07 Jun 2007 at 6:01pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Writer

Sangria Tapas y Bar completes Uptown’s triumvirate of European bistros



Chef Vernon Morales displays a typical tapas specialty: A carpaccio of lamb with mixed greens. (ARNOLD WAYNE JONES/Dallas Voice)

Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “the rich are different” could apply just as easily to how tapas restaurants fit into the culinary universe as to people in the social hierarchy. Like physics at the subatomic level, the rules governing eateries begin to breakdown when you dine on dishes meant to be enjoyed exclusively in small portions that arrive at your table like trains at a terminal. How do service, presentation and the other ineffable qualities of dining change when your entire meal is comprised of highfalutin appetizers?
But in the way that string theory fascinates those who liked to be challenged by the puzzles of the universe, tapas exert an almost gravitational attraction on foodies.

It’s easy to understand why: When a menu is made up of dozens of items, all more or less suitable at any point in the dining process, dinner becomes less a formality than an adventure. Cuckoo over one item? Order it again. Less than thrilled by another? It’ll be gone quickly enough and you can make a mental note to skip it next time.

And there will be a next time. With so many options, you can literally never eat the same meal twice and perhaps never order the same dish twice until you’ve made six or seven visits. Variety is the tapas restaurant’s stock-in-trade.

Sangria clearly knows this. The third of Alberto Lombardi’s Travis Walk-area European bistros (there’s also the Italian-themed Taverna and the French Caf? Toulouse just around the corner), Sangria shares a lot with its sister spaces a rumbling buzz owing to its popularity, a casual but well-crafted aesthetic from designer Ron Guest and a terrific sense of culinary style.

A good first order at any restaurant named after a food is its eponymous inspiration, which is easy to do when you’re named for a cocktail. The red and white namesakes are good, but I’m a junkie when it comes to the sparking sangria, a bubbly-and-fruit concoction that I can easily guzzle like iced tea.

It’s almost too seductive to decide on your favorites too early to commit to a group of usual suspects. But so far, each visit to Sangria has yielded new discoveries.

Simplicity distinguishes many dishes, like a bowl of almonds ($3.50) or olives ($3.50) to begin the meal. One standard order, other than the sparkling sangria, has been the au gratin potatoes ($4), layered with manchego cheese and Serrano ham. But because the style is traditional Spanish (not Tex-Mex or Mediterranean), there’s a liveliness to the menu. There simply are few restaurants in Dallas that delve in this direction so successfully.

The empanadas nuevas de gambas ($4.50) may sound familiar but are astonishingly atypical. Chef Vernon Morales has concocted a variant, stuffed with rock shrimp and spinach, opened at the ends like a cannoli and served with a yogurt dip, that seemed more Indian or Asian than Spanish a kind of New Age egg roll.


A touch of foie gras proves a surprising, rich accompaniment to the skewers of chicken breast and meatballs.

Distinctively Spanish are the pimientos del pardon ($5.95): fried peppers dabbed in salt that are mostly mild but with a few fiery ones thrown in. They’re far more engaging than nacho chips with the added excitement about whether the next one will be too hot to handle.

One of the best values on the menu is the tuna tartare salad ($7.95) seared ahi with a tangy vinaigrette. (They don’t toss it for you, so be sure to mix it up before you eat to thoroughly blend the elements and get the most from the interplay of pears, nuts and anchovy.)

Among the many other favorites are the grilled scallops ($9.50, slightly caramelized and smoky with a potato puree), the braised oxtail ($8.95, again with the delicious puree) and lamb chops ($10.95).

Because they come on small plates, often presentation isn’t a primary concern, but there are exceptions. The chicken cannelloni ($5.95) is clearly one of the best-looking dishes here an eggy crepe wrapped around a spicy, taco-like filling and drizzled with b?chamel sauce.

The gazpacho ($5.95) was served in what’s an increasingly minor luxury nowadays: Into a bowl empty except for avocado and greens, the waiter pours the soup at the table like a glass of wine. It’s surely the most off-handed of elegant touches, but a wonderful one, made better by the taste of the soup itself. The color of a burnt sunset, it’s blended to an unusual creaminess without the small, granulated chunks. (There’s also a white version that’s just as yummy.)

One slight drawback when it comes to tapas service is the arbitrariness of the courses. Go into most restaurants, and the appetizer is followed by soup, salad, entr?, dessert. But when everything is an appetizer, things don’t always work out that way. The first thing we ordered on one visit was the bacon-wrapped dates ($4.50), but they were one of the last items to arrive at our table. That actually worked out well: The odd but delightful flavor profile was nutty, cheesy, salty and sweet, which served equally as appetizer or dessert. (Still, try the rice pudding with amaretto foam or the crema Catalan for delightful sweets that were meant to come at the end of the meal.)

Not every dish knocks it out of the ballpark the albondiguas and chicken croquettes were on the bland side. But the beauty of Sangria is its variety: There’s so much great to choose from you’re never wanting for something wonderful.

REPORT CARD

Sangria Tapas y Bar, 4524 Cole Ave.. Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m., (open until midnight Friday and Saturday and 10 p.m. Sunday). 214-520-4863.

Casual and hive-like with so many selections you couldn’t possibly try them all in six visits.

Overall: Three and a half stars
Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three stars
Service: Three stars
Price: Moderate.

TAPAS IN TOWN

The “small plates” trend has been growing in Dallas over the years. Here are some other purveyors of individual-portion dining in the area.

Americas Latin Cuisine & Tapas, 2900 McKinney Ave. Spectacular and addictive items with a South American slant, particularly Argentine influences (don’t miss the chimichurri sauce). 214-979-2400. Three Stars!

Cafe Izmir, 3711 Greenville Ave. Although tapas are considered a Spanish specialty, Izmir tackles the idea from a Mediterranean perspective, especially on Tuesdays, when they offer great bargains. 214-826-7788. Three Stars!

Cafe Madrid, 4501 Travis St. One of Dallas’ most established tapas restaurants recently acquired a new chef in Mariano Fernandez. (There’s also a branch in The Bishop Arts District.) 214-528-1731. Two and a Half Stars!

Hola, 4831 McKinney Ave. Think of it as Cafe Madrid lite: This casual Uptown spot offers hit or miss items, but the hits can hook you. 214-522-0505. Two Stars!

A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 8, 2007.

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