Food, much like fashion, goes thru trends. Although I’m not certain if the culinary arts follows a similar circular trend, there are trends that can be seen careening from each coast and crashing simultaneously here in Colorado. One of such trends: tapas.
I have said before, and until it changes I will continue to say: Colorado Springs is not a culinary melting pot. It is a collection of many less than stellar franchise restaurants, mixed with fewer privately owned and publicly failing restaurants (whose owners were encouraged by “friends” to open said restaurant) and spotted with even fewer restaurants that boast a price that is justified because of their culinary prowess. (Less than an hour north, there is a much more vast and pleasant culinary culture, but some days I don’t feel like taking my own life in my hands with the morons on I-25.) My husband and I have fairly successfully identified these “diamonds in the rough”, which doesn’t necessarily matter because of how much it costs to dine there. But Friday my husband gifted me with a night off and I was told to select a restaurant.
I had a small list and one of them included a sister restaurant to one of our favorite brewery/restaurants where I celebrated my new job over a year ago(only to be laid off 3 weeks later). The chef at Blue Star is known for being very seasonal (which helps reduce costs, but mostly his) and changing the menu weekly, if not daily (Don’t get attached to a dish). We had amazing food at Blue Star, amongst the tables of brightly colored prom dresses and found out they had a sister restaurant: Nosh. It was fairly new and I was not interested in trying it until I had heard more about it. Well, over a year later it was time to research this whole tapas thingy…
It took 2 calls to make a reservation. I called before their lunch rush and once I was able to secure a person to help with my reservation, I went into research mode to learn more about the “tapas” trend. Tapas is Spanish for ‘appetizer or snack’ and has been part of their dining culture forever. So, why is it so special here? I have a few thoughts:
Go to Cheesecake Factory and order a salad. 20 minutes later you are presented with the sliced/grilled/dressed parts of abetter part of an acre of farmland, delightfully placed in a trough for you to shovel in your face with a pitchfork. It’s an obscene amount of food! And EVERY time we would eat there, we would say to each other “next time, let’s just do appetizers so we have room for cheesecake”. I have been a tapas-style diner for most of my life because entrée portions are out of control. Most have tried to quantify ordering an entrée with the value of “how much you get”, but I end up wasting most of it. I am, admittedly, the girl who orders the artichoke dip or the sampler platter as my entrée. The bane of existence for most wait staff. But I get the amount of food I want and don’t leave with the environmentally destructive styrofoam food-coffin.
I also save money by making appetizers my main. Until tapas crashed into the culinary world locally, appetizers were the less expensive snacks consisting of a myriad of fried cheeses, vegetables or rolls to get your appetite ready for an entrée. Not anymore. With tapas, you can order from a selection of snack sized food, which you are supposed to share and get charged more because it has been translated into Spanish. I love the size of tapas orders because I don’t leave the restaurant waiting to get to the truck so I can exhale and loosen my belt. But I do not love what they charge.
Finally, tapas is popular because it’s new and different here. It is being able to try new things and not having to commit to a full size entrée (but having to pay 4 times as much to get the same amount of food as an entrée). It is going with others and sharing said snacks. (I worked for a national chain of Italian restaurants that only served Family Style, which resulted in many customers being unhappy because “they wanted to choose their own food and family style is stupid”. Once the restaurant chain gave in and provided individual servings, they compromised the food and closed many chains.) Somehow, it becomes an event where people get to share their tastes and try the preferences with their friends/family in a culinary knowledge pissing-game of sorts. So, having made the reservation, we went for tapas, fully aware of what we were getting ourselves into.
The restaurant is in the corner of a business park, thankfully directed by signage starting from the entrance to the parking garage to the sign at the end of the hallway of their entrance. Their patio was closed because of the storms we had been expecting (I appreciate that forethought, because their patio seats at least 2 times what their dining room can…so your essentially screwed if you sit on the patio with a full dining room and Mother Nature percipitates), so we got a seat as close to the window as was available. We were first given a happy hour menu which included drinks and a very limited selection of tapas at their happy hour prices. After ordering drinks, we were asked what we wanted to order for food. The happy hour menu was so limited and we had to request a full menu, which is only available after 5. Thank goodness our reservation was for 5.
The menu is a pleasant mix of cheese plates, light fare, traditional items, odd delicacies and breakfast for dinner. We decided to start with a cheese platter, selecting a smoked goat’s cheese and the most amazingly smooth, extra-sharp white cheddar. Each platter, regardless of cheese selection, is served with cracker-thin flat-bread, home-made apricot preserves, candied walnuts and roasted cashews. There was nothing that came as part of enhancing the cheeses selected. No pickled Granny Smith apple to set off the sharpness and creaminess of the cheddar, no sausage to give the creamy texture of the goat’s cheese some toothiness: there was nothing special. The cheeses were amazing on their own, but nothing about the platter was made to compliment the cheeses individually. We followed up by ordering spicy shrimp (with garlic, chili, peanuts and cilantro), the Nosh burger (with chili relish, cheddar and crispy onions) and chicken and waffles (with smoked Serrano maple syrup). Each was different enough to stand on its own, and all of them were thoroughly enjoyable. My personal favorite was the chicken and waffles (bottom left):
The chicken was admittedly slightly over-cooked, but the crispy waffle and spicy syrup were just amazing. My husband enjoyed the burger and we both loved the shrimp. I am not a fan of cilantro because it is rarely used with a light hand. this dish was a lovely balance of spicy, sweet and cilantro. We debated trying more items, specifically this one: “Local Something Or Other”. See ingredients:
After deciding that we had just enough, we wanted to see what tapas desserts were. I am used to getting a mound of baked something, covered with a sauce, whipped cream or mascarpone cheese and who knows what else…most likely a la mode. But I have been noticing a dessert trend: minis! Dessert minis that come in a shot glass or are 1/4 the size of what the original dessert is. I ordered a Mexican Moon Pie and the husband ordered a vegan chocolate pudding. My selection did not have any description, but I did have some expectations. A moon pie is the portable s’more sandwich with the right combination of crumbly cookie, chewy marshmallow, all enveloped by a tin layer of chocolate. Without a description, I expected my dessert to be a combination of all the aforementioned with some cinnamon (Because that is what Mexican chocolate is). What I received could be used as ordinance for the United States Air Force. It was a dense bullet that exploded into crumbs with pressure from my fork. There was a microscopic smearing of cream, that was little more than the glue keeping the layers of cookie together, also devoid of moisture. Nothing specifically tasty about it. I’m still trying to get moisture back into my palette. My husband’s pudding came in a double-shot glass. It was a deep, rich brown, topped with raspberries and made with…avocado. No eggs, no milk, just avocado and dark chocolate. It was a bit firmer than a pudding, almost like a mousse. Regardless of what it was, it was brilliant. The bitter dark chocolate was complimented by fresh raspberries, with no hint of avocado. Long story short: his dessert was better than mine.
After the check was paid, we sat in a brief moment of satisfaction. We had just taken part in the tapas trend and I was still left wondering. What was so special about this? While I can appreciate the ability to try so many things, I certainly don’t appreciate the price that comes with the label of “tapas”. I even found out that one of my favorite chefs, Hubert Keller, is closing his Fleur de Lys restaurant in Vegas for, what else, a tapas restaurant. But why not capitalize on the trend.
I still don’t have a firm opinion on tapas. I think it’s a light was to dine in the summer, a means of trying new foods without being subject to an entrée size of something the chef dreamed up while smoking pot the night before and I’m looking forward to seeking out tapas restaurants when we visit Las Vegas. But let’s be honest with ourselves, tapas is anywhere in the form of a selection of appetizers or even sharing entrées. I still have yet to experience the difference between a tasting menu and tapas, which I am almost certain involves a price. So, with the gourmet burger trend in the rear view mirror, tapas incessantly merging on the culinary road, I look to the future for the next big trend. (And in light of the events in the Gulf, I can confidently say it will not involve seafood.) I’m seeing Eggrolls: the Epicurean Purse You Can Stuff Like Your Own Purse, with EVERYTHING!