I assess the quality of a Spanish tapas bar on two main criteria: creativity of its signature dishes and execution of the core classics. Tapas Picasso (3923 Fourth Ave. in Hillcrest) succeeds brilliantly on the first count, but it's not nearly consistent enough on the second.
Picasso's albacore mousse paté with chipotle is nothing short of spectacular. A silky, light concoction that's more mousse than paté, it might be best to think of it as a fish flan. The dish is served with slices of grilled French bread, drizzles of aioli and balsamic glaze, microgreens and luminescent pomegranate seeds that elevate the whole affair. If Picasso were in San Sebastian, Sevilla or Barcelona, this is the dish everyone would order on their tapeo—a ritual Spanish culinary bar crawl. It is, without a doubt, a worthy signature dish.
Unfortunately, Picasso's handling of the classics was uneven. A gazpaco—the Andalucían tomato and vegetable soup that's essentially a salad in soup form—ought to have been a good way to start the meal. Instead, it was deeply flawed. The first problem was the poor quality of the tomato itself. The chef compounded that by adding far too much sherry vinegar in order to compensate. The result was a cloying, overly acidic soup that wasn't remotely pleasant.
Far better was the meatballs in spicy chorizo sauce, another Andalucían dish, for which Picasso substituted turkey for the more traditional veal or beef. The tomato-based sauce was flavored with chorizo—not the familiar fresh Mexican stuff with chile peppers but the cured Spanish sausage seasoned with pimenton (smoked paprika)—giving it a hint of spice and an intriguing depth of flavor. Like any good meatball dish, the secret lay in the pairing of sauce and meat. It worked well here.
Less good was the baby eels in garlic sauce—always one of my favorites and a standout at Costa Brava in Pacific Beach. While the eels were superbly cooked, they were overwhelmed by garlic and salt. Well-seasoned food shouldn't taste salty, but round. This tasted less round than angular, with the angles defined by the extremes of salt and garlic.
One classic tapa that Picasso absolutely nailed was the tortilla Española, arguably Spain's national dish. This "tortilla" has nothing to do with masa dough, tacos or sopes; rather, it's a Spanish version of an onion and potato omelet. It's a thick thing, about an inch tall, consisting of layers of egg, thinly sliced starchy potato and sliced onions. Served in wedges with aioli and Picasso's seemingly ubiquitous microgreens garnish, the dish was satisfying and filling, though not exactly heavy. If Picasso were going to nail only one classic, this was the one to nail.
The quality of Picasso's tapas repertoire ranges from excellent to inedible. While the check can add up quickly (happy-hour prices are more friendly), Picasso's albacore mousse tapa is so good that, together with careful ordering, it's well worth a visit.