Tapas attack!

Ketama and De Tapas hit Dallas with flamenco fury

"Tapas" is a term casually tossed around by restaurateurs these days. Servings of everything from grilled sweetbreads with lemon to greasy buffalo wings to bowls of Wheat Chex mixer snacks are dubbed tapas in an effort to give the most lowly tavern mouth-parchers international flair.

But what the heck are tapas? And why do some venues get so drunk with trendy hysteria over the term that they serve buffalo burgers on little plates and call them tapas?

More a style of eating than a particular kind of food, tapas sprouted in Spain--specifically, Andalusia, where sherry is made--in the 19th century. The custom evolved around sherry and the peculiar eating habits of the Spanish, who eat lunch around 2 p.m. and dinner around 10 p.m. This leaves long stretches of time between meals in a country where home entertaining is not common.

Plus, the Spaniards had to figure out what to do with all that sherry they were making. Sherry, with its high alcohol content, doesn't really dovetail well with dinner, so it's generally sipped as an aperitif. The foundations of the tapas bar were in place. (Too bad they didn't attempt a little cross-cultural fusion at this point and combine sherry with a Mexican siesta and call it a day.)

Instead, tapas bars functioned to keep bellies from quaking during those long hours between meals and to soak up some of that sherry. Spaniards began topping the mouths of those little sherry glasses with slices of cured ham or chorizo to keep the dust and flies out (tapas comes from a Spanish word for "cover"). Flies apparently are as fond of a glass of bone-dry sherry as anyone.

Things developed from there, and because Spaniards thrive on endless hours of conversation, tapas bars became enormously popular places to imbibe, gab, and nibble a wide variety of appetizers from little plates.

In the States, tapas bars don't generally function as meal stopgaps or sherry filling stations. For one, Americans aren't generally that fond of sherry. For another, tapas hours are suspiciously close to our mealtime hours, and tapas generally function as light grazing meals here--hence the buffalo burgers.

But a spot in Deep Ellum is set to change all that. Less a restaurant than a casual bar, Ketama Flamenco Tapas Bar is a large space with big-screen TVs playing Spanish music videos or soccer matches, a long bar, tables, and a section in front of a stage with an eclectic assortment of couches and sofas for lounging--kind of like a combination Levitz/Salvation Army showroom. Flamenco music hits that stage nightly (flamenco dance groups are brought in every six weeks). "I'm the one who started the trend with tapas in Dallas 10 years ago," says owner Ildefonso Jimenez, who launched Cafe Madrid with his wife, Donica, before he lost it to her in a divorce settlement. "Now I want to do that with flamenco music. I want to show Dallas that flamenco music has deeper soul than what the Gipsy Kings portray in the mass media."

While tapas bars traditionally don't feature live music, Jimenez says he got the idea for Ketama on a recent trip to Madrid, where he found a live-music tapas bar with scattered couches. With gray cement floors, exposed vents and ceiling beams, large windows that haven't been pestered with fussily pleated treatments, a large mural of a nightclub scene, and guitar sculptures in the middle of the place, Ketama is really an eclectic watering hole that just happens to serve eats.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the servers know much about the water. A simple inquiry about a Rioja (Spain's most famous table-wine district most noted for its reds) on the list drew blank stares. And while there is a reasonable selection of Spanish reds, the whites and cavas are pretty slim. Plus, there are only five sherries.

The tapas, however, are quite good (chef Juan Antonio is a native of Madrid). Shrimp in garlic, tiny sauteed numbers in olive oil, garlic, and Spanish red pepper flakes, were succulent and rich with a hint of smokiness. Octopus vinaigrette--firm, perhaps rubbery flesh with a slightly fishy flavor--had a good, crisp vinaigrette and a freshly engaging green pepper, tomato, and onion salsa.

Quail on the grill was juicy, plump, and flush with delicate fowl flavor. And despite faded, somewhat waxy--though juicy--tomatoes, the mixed salad with white asparagus, lettuce, crisp onions, and green bell peppers in a red wine vinaigrette was fresh, flavorful, and not swamped in dressing. At 10 bucks, a plate of Spanish cheeses--mahon from Mayorga, cabrales, and manchego--was fresh and good. But the portions were skimpy, and the value just wasn't there.

Fried chicken with a thick, crispy, bronze crust encasing moist chicken meat was slathered in a pureed tomato pepper sauce that didn't seem to have the savory potency to stand up to the preparation, spiked with spice heat though it was.

Skewered beef was gristly, mealy, and almost flavorless. But flour-dusted and sauteed frog legs were plump and juicy with a delicate, slightly sweet flavor. The only drawback was that the vinaigrette from the side of salsa saturated those legs if you didn't eat them fast enough--admittedly, not a very difficult thing to do.

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