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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
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19 N. Kirkwood
Average Main Course: They’re tapas. Figure you’ll drop about $45 for a few and some wine.
Dress: Like you know enough not to buy your wardrobe in places that cater to teens.
Reservations: We sit at the bar—unless you do, too, call ahead.
Chef: Christopher Delgado
Tapas. How quickly did that trend become more tiresome than your sister-in-law’s Facebook updates? The problem was always the same: They weren’t really tapas. They weren’t priced like tapas. Small portions at main-course prices didn’t much endear the dining public. And with few exceptions, the trend is in a steeper decline than your 401(k).
Locally, a few places got the idea. One’s in the center of Kirkwood, near McArthur’s Bakery. The interior is Taparia Classic. It looks like a wine cellar, with brick and faux-stone walls, a sizable bar midroom, and seating for small groups. The lighting’s soft. The feeling’s convivial. It’s loud, and chances are, you’ll be close enough to neighbors to have a good view of their menu choices.
Look over what’s on their plates. Assume three or four of those will constitute a full meal. Portions here are perfect for sharing with a companion; if you’re dining with a bigger group, your best bet is to sample a bit, then double back on the items that everyone (especially you) enjoyed. Dishes on the menu are categorized to make ordering easier—meat, seafood, vegetables, and, uh, inexplicably, “starters”—but jump in anywhere. Here are some highlights you’ll want to consider.
Since the dawn of man, he’s struggled: How do you present a decent Caprese salad when tomatoes are but last summer’s memory? One 19 North solves the problem. Sweet cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella are skewered, then drizzled with smoky balsamic vinegar. A lacy crust of fried Manchego cheese and a spoonful of Romesco sauce decorates roasted pencils of asparagus. That sauce, not incidentally, attends several dishes. A critical element of Catalan cuisine, Romesco at One 19 is creditable, the flavor of roasted peppers and pine nuts in pleasant balance, the olive oil integrated with the ingredients. Speaking of fried cheese, eliminate the asparagus (your doctor’s always fussing that you’re eating too many veggies anyway) and just go with a beautiful brick of fried queso Manchego. It’s creamy and nutty, with a smooth aftertaste, and a mild sofrito and herbed crostini alongside the cheese up the yum factor significantly. Another good cheese tapa: baked goat cheese—gooey and gloriously pungent, the unctuous texture goosed by a puttanesca sauce.
Albondigas are to tapas what invisible boxes are to mimes: standards of the genre. The trick with these ping-pong balls of ground meat is to roll them dense enough to maintain shape, yet keep them light enough to be texturally rewarding. A sliced slab of pan-seared tenderloin is another tasty choice. The blue-cheese curds atop the meat lend piquancy; the side of spinach has a scatter of roasted pine nuts. Pork shoulder, slow-cooked and chopped into bite-size chunks, gets an orange juice–flavored marinade; the meat tastes like a superior example of cochinita pibil. The accompanying chimichurri sauce livens up the palate.
An Ellen DeGeneres–Michele Bachmann slumber party would seem a more compatible match than scallops and chorizo. The combo works well here, though. Lightly seared ivory knobs of scallop and a silky, chorizo-spiced demi-glace are delectable. For an even better use of chorizo, try the potatoes, cubed and roasted and tossed with spicy crumbles of the sausage, a splendid combination of textures.
The roasted–red pepper hummus is insipid—not worth dipping the fresh, warm pita triangles into—but the saffron-scented hummus is superb. Pita points work just as well with a platter of olives—Kalamata, green, and Greek—marinated in an herb-infused, oregano-flecked olive oil that make possibly the most delightful light tapa here when paired with a glass of William Hill chardonnay.
A couple of unexpected menu items might surprise you. Not many tapas places have crawfish étouffée. This one’s lovely, a creamy, smoky amber roux studded with sweet, pink crawfish tails. But étouffée without rice? It’s like Bert without (purely platonically) Ernie. Weird. So, too, the only shrimp offering here: a New Orleans–style “BBQ” that’s buttery and spicy and good, but an oddball as a tapa. Other seafood includes tuna and salmon fillets, both grilled, the latter blackened with Cajun spices, the former spritzed with a citrus ponzu.
As befits a good tapas place, the wine here is affordable, modest in breeding, invariably a good fit for the food. There are lots of lusty, purple-the-tongue merlots, engaging pinot noirs, and flinty chardonnays. Suggestions for wine-tapas pairings on the menu are good ones; pay attention, though, to the chalkboard that offers some intriguing wine specials.
Service, even at peak hours, tends to be swift. Fending off near-starvation one night, we scanned the menu and started ordering like a caffeinated Martha Stewart giving instructions to the gardening staff. In less than a dozen minutes, plates started arriving. And arriving. The table creaked. We rose to the occasion—we’re professionals. Still, it’s a good idea to order a few dishes, then have another on deck when they arrive. This isn’t a place to hurry. Go early to avoid the crowds, and make an evening of it.
Desserts rotate continually. On a recent visit, we enjoyed a first-class carrot cake. But remember: The main thoroughfare in downtown Kirkwood, even this late in autumn, is among the most enjoyable après-dinner strolls around—and we did note that McArthur’s Bakery is just a couple of doors down, didn’t we?
The Bottom Line: Tapas and small plates in a low-key, invariably crowded, and thoroughly enjoyable spot in downtown Kirkwood.