There's a boundary, a set of criteria, something that delineates those who like appetizers from those who quiver at the mention of tapas. Wish I could put my finger on it—though judging from the number of times I heard "Oooh, I love tapas" from women in professional income brackets, I'd guess gender and bank account play some role. Whatever—there's a point of no return when a person decides they've grown tired of jalapeño poppers and instead crave a saucer of boquerones or grilled pulpo.
Si Tapas, which took over the old Watel's cottage space in the State-Thomas sector of Uptown, offers both—along with a rather astounding array of other small plates: almejas a la marinera (clams), patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce), pincho moruno (skewered beef), bowls of olives, toasted almonds drizzled with oil and flecked in sea salt, slices of chorizo, slivers of cured meat, plates of cheese. Crumbles of pan-fried morcilla, or blood sausage, present surprisingly subdued, savory flavors piqued by herbal highlights—nothing like the salty, lumbering assault laid on by Northern European styles. On the other hand, a modest spread of lentils, beautiful and dusky to look at, turns feral when disturbed by forks, lashing out with brackish claws of garlic.
These were my first impressions, and the contending dishes caused me to wonder if Si's extensive menu would be its downfall. After all, most Spanish bars limit themselves to 10, perhaps 15 tapas options, at least in my experience, while this place takes a stab at more than 50— and that's not counting maybe 20 other selections and dessert. The risk for any restaurant listing so many items is obvious: harried kitchen staff learn the most popular recipes, leading to mistakes when guests call for the lesser dishes.
But veteran restaurant guy Ildefonso Jimenez has his kitchen staff in order. He managed or owned the likes of Ketama, Café Madrid, a Champagne bar called Brut and, most recently, the Knox-Henderson tapas spot Hola (I may have missed a few); so there should be no excuse for anything other than random inconsistencies. Besides, few tapas dishes demand more than slicing or a toss over heat. Cold cuts, such as Serrano ham, were created elsewhere—laboriously cured until the meat tightens into a ruddy color, tart and nutty in flavor, streaked by veins of silken fat. All the staff at Si needs to do is draw out a sharp knife. The morcilla tasks a line cook to cut and sauté. There's a plate of asparagus spears, grilled and rolled in seasoned oil, then decorated with shredded Idiazabal...although the cheese's pronounced flavor does tend to dominate.
This is, of course, the beauty of tapas, which owes its popularity to the same impulse that attracts people to Italian cuisine: If the kitchen uses good, fresh ingredients and the diner takes things in proper spirit, even julienned red peppers marinated in olive oil turn into something expressive.
Some attribute tapas origins to Spanish bar patrons who covered their glasses (tapas means top) with rounds of bread to keep flies from sharing their precious alcohol; others point to a member of the royal family who enjoyed bites of meat or cheese between bouts with the bottle. No matter the origin story, tapas were essentially tavern fare—easy, salty, oily, sherry-absorbing stuff meant to keep people drinking and stave off hunger until 11 p.m., also known as dinnertime in Spain.
If you really want to do the full cultural immersion thing, you'll head out clubbing until four, stumble into work and then take a long lunch.
Not to say Si's staff struggles with more involved recipes, mind you. Their version of croquetas de Bacalao (cod croquettes) gush a custard-like dough, flecked by sweet corn and underscored with the dense, huskier note of stout fish, from the thick, crispy crust—the very elements of contrast you want from croquettes. Classic gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic) shows the same exquisite care, common shellfish wallowing in an oil-based marinade. Nothing to it, other than the effort involved in forestalling the temptation of garlic to break down and become harsh; they present a stunning base dense in bitter, grassy strands of flavor under an herbaceous waft, the whole thing perked by a modest touch of chile.
You'll want to save the basket of bread for this. Otherwise, their house loaf is useful only to mop up oil stains after working in a NASCAR pit stop...make that after working in a MotoGP garage—since this is a Spanish restaurant.
Almost across the board, Si's tapas presentations hit the classic goals of simplicity and hearty character. There are faults here and there—tortillas Espanola (a form of potato omelet) breaks from tradition, leaning more on the mush of potato than what I anticipated. But it's difficult to label anything of this genre disappointing.
Well, aside from the esophagus-shredding lentils.
Only when Jimenez's crew moves over to more familiar entrée territory does a nagging inconsistency creep in. One of their soups, a sizable bowl of al dente white beans, chorizo, blood sausage and cured meats in a beautifully viscous broth will stick in your memory long after dinner. It's a twisting ride through alluvial and very rich flavors, hearty and savory, tart and sweet, rough-hewn but also surprisingly intricate. You can imagine sitting down at a weathered farmstead table to this dish. On the other hand, their attempt at paella—Spain's most notable culinary export—fails to impress. The mussels are shriveled, though strong in flavor. Most of the shrimp take on an off-putting mushy consistency and it seems to be saffron-free. The rice also shows an odd, non-paella texture.
I've had paella cooked pretty much every way possible—indoors and out, too dry and quite soupy. But this was a new one.
I can't deny, however, that the flavor is compelling: gritty, murky with a touch of peppery spice. Rings of squid add a chewy contrast and the four pieces of chicken added to the mix are astoundingly good, with a still-crisp skin, robust seasoning and a meaty taste.
A few wrongs don't make it not right, right? The restaurant appears to have overcome early service issues, as far as I can tell. Listing so many different items hasn't prevented them from mastering a solid percentage of the menu. Once they're able to throw open the doors to that back patio, it may indeed become a place to hang out, eating round after round of garlic-laden plates before heading out to the clubs and partying all night. Ah, the Spanish.
Si Tapas 2207 Allen St., 214-720-0324. Open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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