Tapas attack!

"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.

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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