Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tinto: Basque in the City

logo from Tinto's official website

Chef Jose Garces has had a good year. With a slew of nationally acclaimed eateries (four in Philly, one in Chicago) he is considered by many as the “Latin” Emeril Lagasse. After receiving rave reviews for his first venture, the tapas bar Amada, in 2005, Garces followed up with Basque-inspired wine bar Tinto two years later. Despite initial expectations of it being nothing more than a dubious sequel, Tinto soon became one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings of 2007. Now, nearly two years later, it still maintains much of that anticipation.

My sisters and I made reservations for a Wednesday night. Tucked away on 20th Street, not far from the bustle of Rittenhouse Square, Tinto is easily missed if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The restaurant was dimly lit and unusually crowded for a Wednesday night (granted, it was Restaurant Week), filled with couples on dates and groups of dressed down execs. We had heard good things about Tinto; local restaurant blogs raved about it as one of the top Restaurant Week “musts”. The ambiance, courtesy of designer Jun Aizaki from the firm Crème, cites the natural elements of a rustic Spanish wine cellar. Sleek wooden lattices line the walls, brimming with bottles, and muted tones of greens, dark browns and yellows are prominent throughout. The small tea lights adorning the tables, bar and walls give the place an undoubtedly calm, if romantic, feel.

Fundamentally a wine bar that offers some of the best Spanish wine selections in the city, Tinto is also known for its innovative tapas dishes, drawing from some of the rich culinary traditions of the Basque country. The Restaurant Week menu offered three courses with a choice of two dishes from the first and second and a choice of one from the third. Most notable from the first course were the Le Moulis Cheese and the Pork Belly Montadito. The Moulis is a firm, cow’s milk cheese produced in a small creamery in the Pyrenees Mountains, its buttery flavor balanced by the earthiness of its natural rind. Tinto’s dish offers it with sides of apple and honey, creating a unique mixture of flavors and textures when combined. The Montadito offered that same distinct mix, merging the tender meat of the Berkshire pork with the sweetness of a honey and apple lacquer.

The second course is the main meat of the dinner so, not surprisingly, it is composed of many meats. Undoubtedly the most memorable were the Pulpo and the Beef Brochette. The Pulpo is a dish of Spanish octopus, boiled and lightly seasoned with salt, piquillo peppers and lemon powder, creating a blend of subtle flavors. The texture may be peculiar to some, but it is certainly not unusual of Spanish fare and to fans of the popular fried calamari. The Brochette concentrated more on dramatic flavors, mingling succulent Hangar steak with cider and sauces of aioli and peanuts. Lastly, the course of deserts offered a choice of Gate Aux Basque or Bananas and Azafrán. The Gate provides a slice of traditional Basque cake with a side of black cherries and pastry cream. The traditional Spanish cake had delicate hints of vanilla and almond, although some tend to find it overly sweet. The Bananas and Azafrán simply offers a typical chocolate cake encircled with caramelized bananas in sweetened saffron cream sauce. I found that the deserts, while appetizing, lacked the intriguing nuances of the first two courses.

It was difficult to find fault with Tinto. At most, the service was simply good, not great, but it is to be expected at one of the most high-profile restaurants in the city. With Tinto, Chef Jose Garces has proven that sequels don't always turn out to be a bad thing. In fact, sometimes, they may even be better than the first effort. So whether you are looking for a place to sip wine with friends on a Friday night or somewhere to have a romantic dinner for two, Tinto is definitely worth the trip.

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