The restaurant on the corner of Norfolk and Fairmont avenues in Bethesda dares you not to check it out. Burnishing Woodmont Triangle since August, TapaBar catches the eyes of passersby with windows that show off an unrivaled interior. One wall hosts a garden of live greenery. Another collects woven bull’s heads in red, white, blue — and yellow. Even from the outside, the warm glow of the lights at the bar and the animated faces of diners make a compelling case for joining the party.
TapaBar is the creation of brothers Alonso and Alvaro Roche, who own Bold Bite, the casual dispenser of burgers and salads next door (and in Union Station in Washington). The name of their new effort leaves no doubt about what to expect food-wise: a collection of Spanish small plates, most of them traditional. A 2003 graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Alonso Roche spent two years in Spain, where he worked as a line cook at Zaranda in Madrid, the recipient of a Michelin star six years ago before it closed (later resurfacing in Mallorca). The chef cures his own lomo (pork loin) and fuet (salami) and, in a tip of the hat to the cocktail of choice in Spain, highlights gin-and-tonics in multiple unusual flavors. The standout, El Chueca, involves an infusion of smoked paprika and garnishes of singed citrus in a generous, globe-shaped glass.
Classic is the way to sail among the tapas. Lamb and pork meatballs are tender, light and luscious, draped with tomato sauce and enlivened with fresh mint, red onion and pine nuts. Of the potato dishes, tortilla Espanola demonstrates the art of simplicity. Sauteed potatoes layered with onion and egg add up to world-class comfort. Shrimp are lightly seasoned with hot dried chilies and served with soft cloves of garlic. More Italian than Spanish, thinly pounded chicken, lightly breaded and scattered with greens, nevertheless makes a nice addition to your butcher block table.
Good ingredients, minimally fussed over, translate to food you want to return for.
A pause that refreshes between the richer dishes is a small bowl of pickled vegetables, including earthy beets and turmeric-stained cauliflower; this bite of something tangy makes possible the easy dispatch of, say, paprika-spiked pork sausages or mushroom croquettes, their thin shells giving way to a molten center of pureed mushrooms, bechamel and a whiff of truffle oil. Vegetarians have sufficient choices from which to compose a meal. But even carnivores find themselves competing for pan-roasted cauliflower offered with an emulsion of piquillo peppers, garlic, potatoes and cream, at once airy and rich.
Take the advice of someone who hates being rushed and order no more than two dishes up front, then a few more as you finish them. The food flies out of the kitchen, and if you request your entire meal up front, you’re likely to see everything descend on your table in about the time it takes to sing “Feliz Navidad.” Making matters worse, the food bearers simply watch while you attempt to clear landing strips for the arrivals.
Otherwise, TapaBar is a comfortable and stylish place to graze. Pillows cushion the banquette in back, thick napkins feel like an upgrade and the handsome photographs of Rioja on the wall turn out to be from the owners’ sister in Madrid. (Credit for the overall look goes to Alvaro Roche, who studied design.) Drop by early on Thursday, and the action extends to live guitar music.
“People say we’re better than Jaleo,” says a server, referencing the nearby Spanish eatery from the celebrated José Andrés. Some people — make that me — beg to differ. TapaBar’s menu is haiku compared to Jaleo’s novel, owing perhaps to the kitchen that dinner-only TapaBar shares with lunch-only Bold Bite. More significantly, TapaBar produces more modest dishes. The patatas bravas are fine, for instance, but not so fascinating you can’t surrender leftovers to your server.
Lesson learned after three expeditions: The larger the plate, the smaller your expectations should be. Sliced rib-eye needs every bit of its shimmering salsa verde to make up for the lackluster flavor of the beef, and sliced tuna, also muted, gets bested by its border of pomegranate seeds, compressed apple and verjus (the pressed juice of unripened grapes).
The rice-based dishes can be drags, too, especially the soupy seafood risotto. While the strapping entree crams in plenty of mussels, calamari and peas, the combination tastes flatly of saffron. For sure, the best part of the dish are the crisp croutons slathered with smoky aioli. More satisfying is rice stained black with squid ink and decorated with soft bands of calamari: ebony and ivory enhanced with a squeeze of lemon.
Think tradition when ordering dessert. The finger-length, sugar-sprinkled churros are lovely by themselves, better after a swipe through chocolate sauce — and better still in a restaurant that, even with its flaws, elevates the neighborhood dining scene in Bethesda.
4901-A Fairmont Ave., Bethesda.
Open: Dinner Monday through Saturday.
Prices: Tapas $5.50 to $15.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice
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