HAPPY-HOUR bar food has become something of an embarrassment in these parts, a stepchild of the kitchen used by the consumers to stave off supper until after 8 and by the purveyors to increase the beverage tabs. In either case, it is likely to be caloric, cholestoric (even those who offer raw veggie crudites have never considered the fat content of blue cheese or ranch dressing) and bland.
This is in part because of the graceless parvenu telescoping of what had been a high point of the day -- the pre-prandial cocktail hour, a time of witty conversation and soulful communion -- into a superficial and often sexually blunt interval between office and house. (Personally, we lay the blame on the Cheever generation, promulgating its portrait of martini-shooting railway commuters stumbling out of the Manhattan blocks into their Connecticut country clubs. Nobody stops to dress for the social hour any more.) After all, there's little reason for bars to provide much in the way of haute bran when so many customers are meeting and eating on the run.
In Spain, on the other hand, where the "evening" begins several hours later and lasts well into the night, they have always viewed bar food with the respect it deserved as partner to the finer spirits. Tapas are something like laid-back late-night dim sum, assorted light bites -- anything from olives and peppers to empanadas and chorizo sausages -- served a plate at a time. Tapas are traditionally accompanied by good sherry, a phrase which is only an oxymoron in the United States.
Now Bethesda's pretty new Nicaraguan restaurant Terramar has come up with a New World compromise: half-price happy-hour tapas. From 4 to 7 Tuesday through Friday, most of the 14 nibblies range around $2 (they're $1.95 to $4.50 at other times), with the $10.95 sampler down to $5.50. And with its elegant, old-style decor -- clean glazed tile, hacienda-roof bar and raised courtyard plantings -- Terramar might teach even habitual gulpers a little grace.
Among the simplest tapas are yuca frita ("lightly fried cassava sticks, our answer to french fries"), a simple but succulent shrimp cocktail and alitas de pollo, grilled and fragrant chicken wings that get their bite not from some heavy red sauce but from a dip in lemon/Tabasco marinade.
The ceviche de calamari with jalapenos is delicate and delicious; it can be had, more plainly peppered, with white fish instead. The white bean salad is a candidate for the healthy eater (a grain/legume credit, with tomato, egg and olive for flavor), and so perhaps is the vigaron, a sort of stir-fried pork/yucca/cabbage salad that is fairly filling.
Those accustomed to the taco bar or chips and salsa routine should try the taquitos (fried baby tacos) or repochetas (the Nicaraguan version of a cheese quesadilla, it is plain inside with the chilero sauce outside) first, because the pastelitos, two-bite-sized meat-filled pastries dusted with raw sugar, are addictive.
The sampler combines Tabasco wings, taquitos, repochetas and marinated white beans; aimed at four people, it makes a good introduction to the menu, but at the traditional leisurely pace, it's better to order each hot dish separately. (Speaking of "hot," nothing here is as yet more than nippy; speak up if you vote for more assertive seasonings.)
Terramar does carry a handful of sherries and ports (including some more expensive vintages) and Spanish and Latin American wines; however, it also has a short list of beers and a fairly complete hard bar.
For those intrigued by the portmanteau name, Terramar ("land" and "sea") offers about a dozen attractively streamlined neo-Spanish dishes: baked chicken marinated, more or less, in marguaritas; pan-fried whole red snapper with tomatoes; orange-marinated pork loin; grilled salmon and tuna; and the classic Argentinian churrasco steak with three sauces. All come with red beans, rice, and sweet and green plantains.
Terramar is at 7800 Wisconsin Ave., at the intersection of Cheltenham Road; 301/654-0888.
PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ: Cellar Door key Bill Kitchen, who was responsible not only for broadening the range of music at the Bayou but increasing the active management of local groups by Cellar Door Productions, has finally acceded to the blandishments of Metropolitan Entertainment, the largest promoter in the New York/Jersey/Delaware region. Not only will he be executive producer of the 3,000-seat Studio 54-turned-Ritz (both concept and entertainment); but he'll be director of "mid-level concerts," which includes bookings at Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher. That's called going legit and beating it, too.
TEA-TOTALLING: In setting up the second (at least) annual fortysomething birthday party for teetotalling "commodore" Tommy Curtis, the Yacht Club bar staff was looking to launch a non-alcoholic shooter, to be called the Tommy Tea. They wound up with the classic grenadine-flavored sparkler; but in this case, we think Curtis is past the Shirley Temple stage. We suggest they call it the Lolita. More seriously, we suggest other bars consider no-octane research. Recipe suggestions welcome.