From Fino to Flan

Café Madrid: Good things come in small bites.

To fully plumb the pleasures of tapas, it is essential to begin with a small cylindrical glass of fino, just a couple of ounces. Fino sherry (Domecq La Ina, $3.95) is a liquid throb that inflames and focuses the taste buds. Sherry sipping is a neglected gustatory ritual. This is a pity. Just a whiff of fino—the driest and palest sherry on earth—wrings streams of dew from the mouth. Its rich almond nuttiness is quickly cut by a stinging knife edge of zesty freshness, fluffing up taste buds like aroused sex organs, making them receptive to the rush of savories to follow. This is what just a little fino does.

You could follow the sherry with potato omelets or the oxtail stew or even little bowls of paella discreetly listed and simply prepared at Café Madrid, but it's best to pair fino with slices of intensely flavored cured meats.

"La tapa," as tapas was known hundreds of years ago in Spain, was a snack slipped between meals. Conventional wisdom held that taking small bites of food with wine between meals was good thing. Such degustations were dispensed in bottle shops and taverns throughout Spain: glasses of wine with a slice of smoked meat or sometimes cheese covering the top of the glass. This served a dual purpose: It prevented flies from plunging into the wine, and it gave guests a solid foodstuff to soak up the alcohol so they wouldn't plunge to the floor.

For more than a decade and a half Donica Jimenez has brought these tastes to Dallas with Café Madrid, her tapas bar and Spanish restaurant. Over this time she's roamed the Spanish earth of Andalusia, the Canary Islands and the islands of Ibiza and Majorca chasing down cheeses, hunting wines and sherries, and gathering recipes to lend her café on Travis—two rooms loaded with old wood tables and mismatched chairs and a third dressed in conventional restaurant furnishings—the smell of rigorous authenticity. Last November, she spread this smell not to Frisco or Plano as some had suggested but to the Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff in a circa 1920s building.

Each spot is best with a fino overture. Try it with a simple plate of Spanish meats cut into ovals of rich red and fiery orange or pinched into folds: serrano ham, thin slices of lean Lomo pork loin, dry-cured with salt, paprika and garlic; and disks of Soria chorizo, a rich dry-cured pork sausage with whorls of creamy fat and thick veins of loin that looks like sliced marble and chews like a heady salami. Each opens with its own distinct sweet-salty tension that yields quickly to a musky bite. Clear away the first bites with fino. Re-invigorate the palate to tease out more complexities—paprika and garlic, streaks of vinegar, little stabs of pepper.

There are dishes of caper berries, as big and menacing as cherry bombs, plump and bulging not with gunpowder but with explosive brine. The plate of fried smelt is cold, shriveled dry and spongy, almost like straw and not at all like the moist ones we washed down recklessly with pints of beer on the shores of Lake Superior. Garlic shrimp, suspended in garlicky olive oil with chili peppers here and there, are awful, the oil dominating the flavor and texture and the shrimp too feeble to pull anything out of the morass. Artichoke hearts seem little more than canned things left to struggle unaided on the plate, though our server assured us these were basked in a simple secret house marinade of vinegar, pepper, garlic and salt. Maybe it's so secret it can't be tasted.

But this is where the small disappointments end. In sum, Café Madrid relishes the beauty of the same little bites supped for generations, unchanged and with artistic culinary ego unexpressed—for the most part. Earlier this year, Jimenez recruited Mariano Fernández—a native of Valencia, Spain, and former chef at New York's Avalon Hotel—as executive chef. At Café Madrid, he tweaks tapas traditions here and there on the specials chalkboard and then erases them. Like the endive salad, a square plate with four spokes of narrow endive leaves that encase grilled asparagus and poached shrimp rested in a smooth aioli topped with charred tomato. He serves silvery white marinated anchovies over flatbread and cream cheese, topped with tomato chutney, the plate ringed with button mushrooms. In the mouth those fish become blades, slashing and piercing the sweet lull set up by cheese and chutney with such ferocity that the drama becomes addicting.

Café Madrid serves two gazpachos, and it's best to order both at once, if for nothing else than to see how the olive oil slicks in the center shimmer over different backgrounds. Tomato gazpacho arrives in a shade of Campbell's red: simple, brisk and satisfying. Almond and garlic gazpacho is as white as milk with a refreshing blast of cucumber on the finish, though there is no cucumber. But lurking on the bottom are grape halves that seem to fill the soup with cucumber freshness. There is not a drop of cream in these soups. Their milky viscosity is earned with fresh bread, which is liquefied with the tomato or the almond and garlic and then strained off.

Café Madrid maintains wine lists that are broad and varied at the Travis Street location and brief and stubby in the Bishop Arts District. Blame wet-dry laws for the latter. At Travis you find Crianza and Reserva and Gran Reservas from Rioja, Spain's most famous table wine district. There are the reds and whites of Penedes, and the reds of Ribera del Duero. But you'd be hard pressed to pair a wine with the brisk heap of octopus, cut into thick slices. It's tender yet invigorating, slow cooked in a stock of carrots, lemons, onions, celery and leeks, then dressed with olive oil, tomatoes, peppers and sherry vinegar. Better to match a perfumey and elegant Albarino with the grilled chicken, a juicy breast marinated in olive oil, paprika and cayenne pepper.

The pacing is at Café Madrid can be relentless. Plates are dropped off in rapid succession with no hint of logic or eye toward utility. Table space is sucked up in a blink. It's easy for an elbow to slip on spinach or a wrist to get streaked by an octopus slice. Yet at the same time food appears in ceaseless torrents, drinks are slow to appear, if they appear at all. But the mad unevenness becomes a memory lapse once the salmon arrives, blanketed in greens and cucumber and chunks of cantaloupe with green beans; a lush moist fish with an edge of smoke.

Listen to the casings snap on the fried blood sausage with each bite of this earthy link of pig's blood, rice, peppers and onion. Or chew the red velvety lamb chops, lurid with juice, with a forkful of white cannelli bean puree.

Great statements in Spanish are made with paella. Though in Spain the dish is made with dry, hard, almost crunchy rice, here the grains billow in a blooming fluff. It's a bounty of hooked plump shrimp, their long red antennae stranded across the heap like hairs plucked from the head of an Irish lass; thick disks of scallop; a mussel here, a clam there; small pieces of desiccated chicken and pork; roasted peppers; and peas pebbled throughout. The rice is buttery rich with a thin wisp of smoke and a squeeze from the lemon wedge over everything sets it on edge.

Finish with the paella and be fulfilled if your sweet tooth sleeps. If it's restive, there's the rich and firm tres leches flan with fanned paper-thin slices of strawberry—from fino to flan in one winding, savory junket.

4501 Travis St., 214-528-1731. Open 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Second location: 408 N. Bishop Ave., No. 108, 214-942-8272. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. $$-$$$

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