Restaurant >Hot house
The Valencian tomato-tossing festival known as La Tomatina is one of the best food-fight fêtes in the world, so one might expect an eatery celebrating that annual mayhem of messiness to be somewhat rowdy, raucous and a little saucy. Not so Mi Tomatina, a refined Hannibal Square tapas joint that fancies itself a paella bar. Itís a small space, but the bold colors, ďMiró-inspiredĒ décor and tables inlaid with mosaic tiles make it inviting. Itís intimate enough to take your significant other for a special night out, but itís also a great place to meet up with friends for small plates and Spanish sherry, and the only vegetables likely to bonk you on the head are the falling acorns from the trees fronting the sidewalk tables.
Friends of mine had arrived before me, and I was surprised to see one of my guests enjoying a complimentary flight of tasting-sized Spanish wines. Our waiter, in fact, was quite encouraging when it came to sampling whatever we wished, even some aged Faraon sherry ($10), which I thoroughly enjoyed alongside the scores of tapas items we ordered.
Starting the meal off with marinated olives ($6) is never a bad idea, but the hongos rellenos ($9), portobello mushroom caps stuffed with serrano ham and crowned with shaved manchego, had my friends buzzing at the very first bite. The hongos were just one of a slew of standout items on a bill of fare comprising 24 hot and cold tapas dishes. Entremeses ($12), a platter of mixed meats, cheeses and two compotes, makes a great sharing plate. Of the meats Ė chorizo, morcilla, Spanish salami, cured pork loin and serrano ham Ė only the latter disappointed. It was dry and bland, which only served to accentuate the hamís saltiness. The cured pork loin, or lomo, was melt-in-your-mouth good, while mahon, manchego and tetilla cheeses were promptly devoured along with fig and raisin compotes. Papas bravas ($6) incorporates all the comfort of home fries, but with an herbaceous kick thanks to a liberal splashing of truffle oil and fresh parsley.
Tortillas (not the Mexican variety) are arguably the most popular tapas item in Spain. The chorizo version ($6) served here may veer from the traditional in terms of look and feel, but the flavors were impressive nonetheless. Layers of egg, potato and onion form the bite-size cuboids, given a peppery jolt from a spread of pimentón aioli, while fat rounds of chorizo atop the savory cakes lend a smoky textural contrast. Baby lamb chops ($12) are dressed with fresh mint and served with a rioja wine reduction Ė not outstanding, but certainly a worthy-enough option to sink your teeth into.
Sampling paella at a paella bar is practically a must. Here you can opt for the five they offer, or create your own from a host of available ingredients. (They serve two or three people, something to keep in mind before going loco on the tapas.) They even have a version with hard-to-find Spanish squid ink ($36) Ė itís prone to staining lips and teeth, so be wary if youíre on a date. A paella de champiñones ($28) offers a vegetarian alternative to all the meat-heavy fare, but the plump assortment of wild mushrooms makes it, ironically, a meaty dish. One note: As much as I dug for the socarrat, the prized crispy, caramelized rice layer at the bottom of the pan, I didnít find as much as Iíd hoped.
Suggesting you leave room for dessert may sound absurd after such an indulgence, but do leave room for the San Marcos cake ($7), spongy chiffon soaked in rum, layered with Chantilly cream and embellished with a crème brûlée crusting. The flan ($7) suffered from the competing flavors of the strawberry sorbet topping and a pool of nose-flaring sherry.
Aesthetics clearly play a large part in the eateryís approach to small plates, and while the tapas trend has led some purists to cop an ďIf itís pretty, itís not real tapasĒ mindset, Mi Tomatina is out to prove such purists otherwise.