Three locations: Downtown, Carlsbad and Tijuana
by Steve Mayberry
For the millionth time with the millionth different date, I wandered Gaslamp at 9:45 p.m., looking for an open kitchen.
"When you write about this, just don't say anything mean about me," she pleaded.
Apparently, she did her homework. Changing the topic, I pointed out Café Sevilla, the happening little restaurant cum tapas bar cum nightclub. The kitchen stays open until 11, and even better, the tapas bar, serving a limited menu, stays up with the nightclub until closing time.
"Italian food fills you up," she said.
I bit my tongue. But when she called the salsa a "spicy marinara," I quietly pointed out that we were in Café Sevilla.
"Oh. What does "Sevilla' mean?"
I think it translates roughly: "We need more geography classes in our public school systems."
The salsa and sweet garlic butter came alongside a small tray of olives-the good ones, black, with pits-and a satisfying breadbasket. The food came in handy, because with dozens of cold and hot tapas, several salads, another dozen entrees, and so on-not to mention the wine list and clever martinis-getting through the menu can feel like a Spanish 101 reading assignment.
Fortunately, the menu offers a few tapas combination platters, such as the "Platter of Six Tapas," which sounds like something out of Indiana Jones.
"They're good," said our waiter. "But I don't know if they're the six I would choose."
"OK, give us the six you would choose, instead."
"I can't substitute," he said.
"Well, what's your favorite?"
"Just one favorite?" he said, scanning the list. "Hmmm. That's hard."
Strike one. Strike two came when he cautioned us about shellfish and nut allergies as he brought out the food. His recommendation was strike three: slivers of lamb in red wine sauce (Cordero a la Cordobesa). The meat was overdone, the unpleasant tartness of the sauce overpowering.
On the platter, which was more like a small canoe, tough, overdone cubes of pork shared skewers with sweet grilled chunks of pepper, onion and tomato. I don't often eat the vegetables and skip the meat, but these left me no choice. The chicken croquets had a consistency and taste familiar to anyone who's ever tried to reheat a chicken casserole one too many times. The promised spiciness was nowhere to be found in the potatoes in spicy tomato sauce (Patatas a la Brava).
The entire canoe was not a loss. The calamari was brilliant, fresh squid with a thin salty breading, and a light dusting of cayenne. The pan-seared shrimp were fresh and not overcooked. But the finale, the Empanada Barcelona, was an ill-advised mish-mash of fishy salmon mousse and chewy leftover shrimp under a too-sweet cranberry port sauce.
Chanting "OH-ver-RAY-ted," we left the dining room for the tapas bar. (I needed to try at least one Mojito special.) The tapas bar is smaller and more intimate than either the dining room or the club downstairs, and has the traditional glass case along the top of the bar, showcasing cold tapas. The bartender recommended that we try the garlic shrimp. What the hell.
The shrimp were good, but the spicy white wine garlic sauce was fantastic, thin slices of garlic cooked to perfection. The bartender, Fernando, introduced himself, and I begged for another recommendation. The lamb chops in the Cordero Madrid were infinitely more tender and flavorful than the Cordero a la Cordobesa, and the accompanying fava bean and sausage gravy once again had me cleaning the plate with the bread.
Could he make it three in a row? Oh yes, he could. The seafood crepe was a perfect ending, with a rich buttery lobster sauce (the menu describes it as "light," but don't believe it) covering a doughy seafood pastry.
Fernando did almost falter once, recommending the rich but unremarkable Copito de Chocolate, layered white and milk chocolate mousse in a chocolate shell. Try the chocolate espresso Crème Brulèe, instead.
I asked the date for parting shots.
"I think you should mark them down for not peeling the shrimp."
I sipped my outstanding mojito, and wondered what the odds were that Fernando was free next Saturday night.
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