Jason Wilson's favorite tapas restaurants in Philadelphia

Posted: February 02, 2012

HOW MUCH tapas is too much tapas? My dining companion asked me this question as we ate and drank at Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran's new tapas spot, Jamonera.

Now, before I answer that, a confession: I love Spain; I love tapas. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent in one Spanish town or another, hopping from bar to bar, dropping a handful of euros on small bites and glasses of wine or sherry in one spot, then moving on to the next. I love Spain and tapas so much that last fall I was invited to judge an international tapas competition in Valladolid, Spain.

At home, when I say "I love tapas," people always enthusiastically nod their heads in agreement. Who doesn't love tapas! But over the years, I've found that we're likely talking about two different ideas of tapas. In the U.S., of course, the word "tapas" has largely been unhinged from its Spanish roots to become simply a synonym for "small plates," which of course has become the dominant form of popular dining.

But real tapas is more than just small plates. In Spain, you rarely stop at one spot for an entire evening of tapas. Spain has the highest number of bars per capita in the world, and most Spanish cities boast a critical mass of bars with lots of different house specialties to try. The tradition of the tapeo (or tapas "bar crawl") is about crowds, movement and being out and about as part of a group in flowing public spaces. It's about eating standing up - being so casual that you often just toss your toothpicks and napkins on the ground when you're finished.

The drinks are also very important. It's often the opposite of usual pairings, where the wine or beer is meant to accompany the food. In Spain, tapas is often the accompaniment to the drink.

This experience is difficult to replicate back home, as Turney and Safran found when they traveled throughout Spain's Andalusia region during a research trip for their newly opened restaurant, which replaces Bindi, their recently shuttered Indian BYO. In towns like Seville, Turney said, she was taken by the raucous tapas scene.

"People were eating standing up and the crowd was spilling outside, and we were like, 'Why doesn't this work at home?' " Turney said. "But it just doesn't work. People don't want to stand in a crowded space. It's just not in our culture. When you're in Spain, you get caught up in the whole 'we're on vacation' thing. But even we wouldn't want to do it at home."

So Jamonera, like the other good tapas-style places in our city, has altered its approach to cater to the sit-down restaurant experience that Philadelphia's diners prefer. So far it looks like a successful equation - tapas already seems like an easier sell than Indian food. Jamonera was packed during my visits the first week.

What Turney and Safran have gotten right is the focus on the bar and letting the food complement the drink. Turney said that approach has been different than any concept they've tried before. "We always said we'd never have a bar," she said. "Now I'm like, 'Oh, wow. We just poured a beer and that's equal to a salad [in profit].' "

One glowing example of the approach is the Bandarillas y Vermouth item on the menu. Bandarillas (named after the colorfully decorated, barbed sticks used in bullfighting) are traditional skewers of chorizo, manchego, stuffed olives, guindilla pepper, smoked tomato and caper berry. The dish at Jamonera is served with a glass of delicious Perucchi reserve vermouth on the rocks.

I'm hoping that people discover that there's more to Spain that sangria, which I've always thought of as kinda touristy - and certainly there were plenty of carafes of sangria on the tables at Jamonera. But beyond sangria, people are beginning to discover the wealth of Spanish wines - many people in the wine world call Spain "the New Italy" - and Jamonera's list is full of interesting selections such as mencia from Bierzo, garnacha from Montsant and Priorat, bobal from Manchuela and monastrell from Alicante.

Jamonera's particular wine focus, however, has been on sherry, the fortified wine that pairs so well with all tapas.

Sherry, darling

I've been excitedly trying to turn people on to the pleasures of crisp or manzanilla sherry - or the richer amontillado, my personal favorite style - for years. People older than 40 probably think of the cream sherries that their doddering old aunts drank, and that's a shame. But a younger generation of drinkers has no such association. Turney told me they'd sold an amazing 26 glasses of sherry on a Friday night. She said she was blown away by a table of young women in their early 20s, all of whom were drinking $10 glasses of sherry.

This is not to say that the food isn't important at Jamonera. It's the kind of sophisticated bar food you could eat several times a week. "I'm always looking for what's crave-able," Turney said. "Would you go home and think about this dish? That's what I'm looking for on all of our menus."

It's true.

As for me, the crispy fried oyster toasts, the pumpkin and cheese croquetas, and "Spanish breakfast bite" toast of fried quail egg, sobrassada sausage and manchego were all dishes I've craving since I had them last week. Also, Turney's grilled octopus, a standard at nearly all tapas restaurants, is among the best I've had in Philadelphia.

This is no small thing, because Spanish tapas is one dining category in which Philadelphia happens to be incredibly strong. Of course, any restaurateur who enters the tapas realm has to deal with the 800-pound gorilla that is the Jose Garces empire.

Our tapas town

Tinto, Garces's Basque-style tapas spot, is one of my favorite restaurants in the city, and its Tuesday happy hour with $2 bites is probably as close to a Spanish tapas experience as you'll find in the city. I also revisited Amada a few weeks ago. I hadn't eaten there in a while, and I fell in love all over again with the tortilla espaƱol, the albondigas (lamb meatballs), the grilled baby squid, and the revuelto (shrimp and mushrooms in shirred egg).

But even beyond the Garces empire, I was happy to see an old favorite, Bar Ferdinand in Northern Liberties, also still going strong. I've always thought of Bar Ferdinand as the (slightly) more budget-friendly tapas alternative in the city. The date-bacon empanadas were as indulgent as ever, as was the monkfish pancetta, and the skirt steak served with a fried egg on top. I was also happy to see that Bar Ferdinand was still committed to offering a bunch of sherries on its wine list.

With four great tapas places now, Philadelphia may be inching closer to somewhere you might actually undertake a Spanish-style tapeo. I undertook my recent little tapas crawl, of course, to answer my friends' original question: How much tapas is too much tapas? Well, we're still a very long way from tapas overload. In my opinion, there may never be enough tapas.


Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.


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