Tapas attack!

Ketama and De Tapas hit Dallas with flamenco fury

Soria-style cured chorizo, thick slices of sausage with oven-toasted almonds in the center of the plate, was fresh and chewy with an assertive tang and spice bite.

Ketama has a lot going for it: a comfortably funky space; authentic, flavorful tapas; and live flamenco music. But it's in an area whose young-adult audience thrives on variety, experimentation, and information. And if it's going to position itself as a true Spanish culinary experience, authenticity would be greatly enhanced if the staff knew what is uniquely Spanish about its components. Ketama would most certainly benefit from a sharply trained staff that can talk knowledgeably about Spanish wine regions and wines including sherries. That at least two Ketama servers didn't have a clue what Rioja is, was certainly not a good sign.

While tapas bars in Spain thrived and multiplied via sherry and conversation, Dallas tapas bars replicate in the fashion of an amoeba: by splitting. De Tapas is the second tapas bar formed over the last few months from a piece of Cafe Madrid restaurant matter. It's a partnership between three Cafe Madrid alumni: original Cafe Madrid chef Carmen Alonso-Jimenez (Ketama founder Ildefonso Jimenez's mother), Joe Marino, and Carlos Lukic (Ildefonso Jimenez's brother-in-law). The three departed Cafe Madrid following the divorce of Ildefonso and Donica Jimenez.

While Ketama is more of a live flamenco lounge with food, De Tapas is simply a restaurant serving little Spanish dishes, tucked in the Village on the Parkway at Belt Line Road and Montfort.

Large linoleum tiles painted brown form the floor. Blond ladder-back chairs surround equally blond shellacked tables. Geometrically structured windows with the name of the restaurant rendered in glass at the top have tied drapery treatments. Straw-hued textured walls with rust trim complete that chic earthen interior-design quality you so often find in style magazines glorifying the living spaces of rich, famous, and globally conscious blowhards. Only the ceiling acoustical tiles, which did a poor job of absorbing the rust paint they were assaulted with, reveals that this place was not created by someone rich or famous but by resourceful folks working hard to create a simple, clean space to enjoy simple, ethnic food.

Can a place like this survive in cookie-cutter North Dallas retail space?
It'd be cool if it could, but I have my doubts. De Tapas has zero see-and-be-seen appeal, a critical component for a new Dallas restaurant. It's little more than a place to sit down and sample authentic tapas. It has a good representation of Spanish wines, but it inexplicably has an anemic sherry selection. My copy of the list shows only two.

Still, the food is decent, with just a few rough spots. Blood-rice sausage served on thin bread wedges was moist, hearty, and flavorful, though the bread was a bit dry and forgettable. Marinated fried white fish--bits of fish marinated in vinegar and lemon and covered in a light, crisp coating--was flaky and light without any greasy residue. The fried smelts were equally good, with light breading and an appealingly assertive briny taste.

De Tapas' sweetbreads in lemon butter and capers had all the delicate flavors and tender, creamy, smooth textures that make this dish such an inviting delicacy.

Marinated quail on the grill in olive oil with cumin, parsley, and garlic was juicy, but virtually flavorless. Equally blase were the anchovy-stuffed olives.

Marinated pork loin on the grill, a thin piece of pork meat--almost like a slice of veal--in a marinade made from cumin, parsley, olive oil, and garlic was tender and juicy. And excepting a slightly mushy texture, the octopus vinaigrette was tender and chewy with a good tomato-onion salsa in a lively vinaigrette.

Two dishes that surprised me were the marinated artichokes and asparagus. Both were fairly good, with crisp vinaigrette flavors, but they were both prepared with canned goods. A little digging, however, revealed that these dishes are rarely prepared with fresh ingredients in Spain, and instead incorporate canned or jarred vegetables. A little Americanization with fresh ingredients, when available, would make an astounding difference.

Paella had perfectly cooked rice with calamari, slightly dry chicken pieces, and very dry pork. The overall consistency was a little too dry and pasty, while the lima beans and peas were mushy--obviously not fresh.

Like Ketama, De Tapas does most things right on those little plates. But De Tapas' service is tighter, and the overall execution is a little better. For the mildly curious, De Tapas is a great change of pace in the somewhat homogenous Dallas hinterlands.

Ketama, 2801 Commerce St., (214) 651-1119. Open Monday-Saturday, 5p.m.-2a.m. Food stops at midnight weekdays and 1:30 a.m. weekends. $$-$$$ De Tapas, 5100 Belt Line Road, (972) 233-8553. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.-12 a.m. $$-$$$

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