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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
June 13-20, 2007

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Photograph by Ronit Taggart
Tapa dancing: Were these dishes inspired by flies or kings? Who cares? The great taste is all that matters.

Tapas Fit for a King

Drop the ontological debate and tip back your glass at Bistro Al Mar

By Denise Vivar

Many of our eating customs began so long ago their origins can become the stuff of long-twisted tales and legends. The roots of these age-old traditions are therefore hotly debated. How did the potato get to Europe? Why do we clink our glasses in a toast? Even more recent mores such as rubbing lime on the rim of a beer bottle are in dispute. Is it to ward off the flies or to give a little help to substandard brew?

When it comes to the origin of tapas, at least the name gives us a clue as to their conception. Tapas are small plates of food typically shared among friends over glasses of wine or beer. The word "tapa" means cover or lid, and it is said that some time ago wine was served with a hunk of bread on top of the glass to deter flies from getting inside. And what to do with the bread along the way but eat it? Other accounts insist that the cover was a slab of ham for the king's glass so he wouldn't have to drink without eating.

Regardless of the origin, most agree that combining spirits and snacks is a good thing. In Spain, where meeting over tapas is a social phenomenon, the only argument is in which region or restaurant the best ones are created.

Recently, we in Santa Cruz have come by our own tapas purveyor, or tapeo, in the resurrected Bistro Al Mar, formerly known as the Almar Grill. In speaking with Karl Cook, partner and cook in the bistro (as well as for O'Mei restaurant), it is evident that he is pleased to bring back the tapas. He and his partner Roger Grigsby have worked together for more than 20 years at O'Mei and thought they wanted to create a casual Asian eatery in Xin Noodles, but soon found that they missed the tapas.

"Tapas are fun," he enthused, "both the making and the sharing."

I had this precise thought in mind as I gathered up a posse of friends on a Friday eve and headed to the bistro. As we pulled together tables and chairs to accommodate our large group, I noticed the interior awnings, which prompted the illusion that we were actually eating alfresco. The ceiling is painted a midnight blue and flung with luminescent stars--so Van Gogh.

We surveyed the menu as a bottle of Vine Hill Gatos Locos Pinot Noir ($25) from the succinct but well-balanced wine menu was poured. Over the next couple of hours, we managed to try many of the cool and hot tapa offerings. Sadly, one of my personal favorites, the Rusa salad with potato, carrot, peas, peppers, tuna, egg and aioli ($3), was not available. Ditto for anything with green beans or meatballs.

The unanimous favorites were the grilled chicken breast planchito with lemon-garlic-bay flavors ($6), the braised lamb with apricots, raisins and Moorish spices ($6), the grilled prawn "pinchos" in chermoula with creamy tatzik sauce ($5) and the manchego cheese with membrillo (quince preserves) ($5). The lemon-garlic-bay sauce for the chicken was bright and sassy, the lamb tender in an earthy sweet and spicy Moorish sauce and the Manchego cheese and quince pleasing in its simplicity.

In past visits, I have enjoyed the Italian butter beans with sage and olive oil ($4), but they were decidedly undercooked on this visit. Our waitress cordially replaced the dish with a lovely lentil salad that was on the specials board. The chilled asparagus ($3) was generously portioned and cooked to a tender-crisp bite, but the "aioli" lacked garlic. Both the crisp chicken and roasted onion croquettes ($5) and the chickpea fritters ($7) were too crispy for my liking, although the pepper aioli from the chicken croquettes replaced the asparagus' aioli nicely.

Happily, smaller portions mean room for dessert. Our waitress, in her munificence, brought us a bittersweet chocolate cream Catalan with almonds ($6) on the house, but our hands-down favorite dessert was the Spanish rice pudding with pistachios ($4), which had a dreamy orange blossom water infusion--an absolute must-try.

Undeniably low prices and a mélange of choices make variety easily affordable here. Bistro Al Mar will provide the dishes; you and your friends bring the fun.

Bistro al mar

Address: 841 Almar Ave., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.420.0114

Hours: 5-9pm Tue-Sun.

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