It’s a strange little trend. Conservas, or foods preserved in cans or jars, are considered a delicacy in parts of Spain and Portugal, and their allure as a specialty food is slowly spreading. In 2014, a London design firm opened up a pop-up restaurant named Tincan in Soho, devoted to elevating colorful cans filled with seafood to what they called “objects of desire.” The cans were as much decorative fixtures as they were menu items, adorning the walls in neat rows, begging to be touched.
Huertas, a basque inspired restaurant in New York’s East Village, also sells plates of carefully arranged delicacies recently liberated with pull-tabs. In the evenings, they offer a special of smoked trout on toast and a can of beer for $10. Maiden Lane in the East Village offers an extensive menu of conservas, including briny cockles that will set you back $60 can. The restaurant also serves preserved meat, or charcuterie, and has no kitchen.
And now here in Dallas you can order sardines thoughtfully plated with strips of red peppers, capers and a lemon wedge, all of it decadently dressed in fruity olive oil. The dish Eight Bells Alehouse will set you back 10 bucks, and with a pint of Old Speckled Hen pulled from a nitrogen tap it is one of the best bar snacks available in Dallas, hands down.
Of course, you have to have a taste for the stuff, and canned fish doesn’t have the best PR front in the States. StarKist and other commodity canneries have ruined us with products that smell more like cat food than people chow. What house cat doesn’t come running when a can of albacore is pierced? The thought of that same can offered as a luxurious bar snack seems laughable.
But the tuna belly dished at $24 a plate at Eight Bells is far from a tin of Bumblebee. The meat arrives in sumptuous, fatty flakes of fish that quiver when the plate hits the bar. Massive caperberries adorn the fish, along with slivers of fresh chives and whole black peppercorns that explode between your teeth like gunpowder. This is as far from grocery store tuna as you can possibly get. It’s basically canned toro.
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Back in Europe, a can like this would be the mark of special occasion or celebration. Hosts break out tins of fish when guests arrive and during the holidays. They are coveted as collectables. Maybe that’s why I feel so lucky that I can celebrate something as mundane as the end to another day of work with something that’s so special. Mackerel is offered at $10 and is dressed as simply as the sardines, the oil and lemon dancing on a background that tastes of seafood but stops short of fishy.
These simple plates shine the brightest here, while heavier dishes, like the tuna stuffed into piquillo peppers and drenched in a sweet and heavy tomato sauce lose all of their subtleties. The bread slices served alongside many of the plates are another problem. Eight Bells seems a little tone deaf in offering what tastes like bread that could be bought at Fiesta Mart alongside some of the best conservas available on the planet. How nice it would be to perch a mussel swimming in spicy escabeche on a thin slice of toasted baguette from a bakery of equal merit? Customers are sometimes offered the choice, but crackers are always available if they are requested and they should be with every plate. Sturdy and simple, they lend some texture to every bite.
If you can’t get your head around canned fruits of the sea, there are a few sandwiches available. Diego’s Monster closely mimics a charcuterie-stuffed muffaletta, all the way down to the olive tapenade, and a ham sandwich is both simple and enjoyable. The latter comes with a tangy sauce I couldn’t resist dipping my sandwich into. Both come with a satisfyingly snappy pickle.
The simple menu points to a minimalist kitchen containing little more than a convection oven and hot plate behind the pass. Peter Tarantino is charged with plating up the little gems and assembling the sandwiches. You might have bumped into the affable chef if you spent any time at the short-lived Record Lounge next door, where he briefly spun wax and mixed drinks for vinyl heads. It’s hard not to wish that Tarantino had brought his records with him. They’d fit right in with a quirky space like this.