by Sam Gugino
Ever go to a restaurant on a Saturday evening when you and your significant other were the only ones there? You’re thinking, “Is this place a hidden treasure, or do others know something I don’t (like no one else is here for a reason)?” Hoping the former, my wife and I entered an empty Don Quixote, a tapas restaurant on South 4th Street.
The small storefront spot has exposed brick covering half of one wall with an odd kind of plaster mural and various crockery covering the rest. Opposite is a small bar.
The soft Spanish music stopped abruptly after we ordered. Our waitress explained that (when audible) the music came from the smartphone of someone in the kitchen, who was now talking on it (loud enough for us to hear; she wasn’t happy). Another call interrupted the music about 15 minutes later.
There were no specials on the blackboard and none announced by our waitress, another oddity on a Saturday night. Tapas, the small Spanish style dishes that are the specialty at Don Quixote, come hot and cold, figuratively and literally. The best tapa was cod fritters. It was also one of the best small dishes (or appetizers) I’ve had since doing this column. The fritters were delicately crunchy with a deep and rich salt cod flavor. Mussels in a well-seasoned broth had an almost chalky texture and the broth was oversalted. Flash-fried calamari was pleasant enough though under salted and accompanied by a rather tame aioli.
Among the cold tapas was smoked eggplant, mingled with tomato, onions and olive oil. It was just-out-of-the-fridge chilly and under seasoned. Better, in temperature and flavor, was a combo of cannellini beans and tender cubes of octopus in a tangy lemon vinaigrette.
A cold entree of Manchego cheese and Serrano ham that was once a tapa on the menu should have remained so because it was only slightly larger than other tapas. The ham was fine, if sliced a mite too thick, but Manchego was disappointingly mediocre.
There are three types of paella on the menu. But given the overall performance on the tapas, the restaurant’s forte, discretion prevailed. When I left the restaurant, it was as empty as it was when I entered. I guess some people knew something I didn’t.
Don Quixote, 526 South 4th street, Philadelphia, 215-923-2200, www.donquixotetapas.com. Tuesday – Friday, 4 pm – 10 pm, Saturday, 11 am – 11 pm, Sunday, 11 AM – 9 PM. Tapas, $5-$15. Paella, $16-$18. Reservations and credit cards accepted.
Tapas offer a great opportunity to explore sherry, jerez in Spanish. Tapas were created in Andalucía, Spain, where all sherry is made because sherry drinkers needed some nibbles to tide them over until dinner, especially since sherry is higher in alcohol (generally 18 to 20%) than table wine. So sip, don’t slurp. Leftovers can be refrigerated for several weeks.
Speaking of leftovers, sherry is a tough sell in the United States. As a result, it doesn’t turn over as often as it should, which can be a problem for dry sherry, which should be consumed as fresh as possible. A layer of dust on the bottle in your local state store is a good indication that you should buy your sherry elsewhere.
Fino sherry like Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Extra Dry (Code: 38137, $17.99) is the lightest and driest sherry—some might even call it austere. Serve it well chilled (never over ice) with salty dishes like deep-fried foods.
Manzanilla is like a fino but with a salty tang because it is made near the sea. I found the Emilio Lustau Manzanilla Papirusa (Code: 10220, $15.99) somewhat more full-bodied and more complex than the Gonzalez Byass. Try it (also well chilled) with seafood dishes like steamed clams or grilled shrimp.
Amontillado (Lustau Los Arcos Dry Amontillado, Code: 25961, $15.99) is an aged fino with a beautiful amber color. It is slightly more alcoholic and has a nutty, vanilla flavor. It’s more appropriate for richer dishes, particularly with nuts. Serve at room temperature, meaning the low to mid 60s.
Oloroso is a silky and rich sherry with a full-bodied flavor and deep color. Though Oloroso can be off dry, which pairs favorably with robust cheeses, the Lustau Almacenista Oloroso Pata de Gallina Juan Garcia Jarana, Code: 25960, $30.99) is dry and appropriate for meatier entrees. Serve both at room temperature.