Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pintxo - Santa Monica, Ca

When the "small plates explosion" hit the Bay Area about ten years ago with the opening of the "big three" Cesar, A Cote, and Fonda in the East Bay over the course of a few years, not to mention countless others in San Francisco and elsewhere, everyone (and by everyone I mean mostly single professional women in their thirties) fell in love with dining "tapas style."

The thing is, these restaurants offered very little in the way of true "tapas" dining and the aforementioned "everyone" definitely wasn't dining "tapas style" since dining in that manner involves traveling to multiple locations and imbibing indescribable quantities of wine, beer and sangria, not plunking one's ass at Cesar for three hours and drinking a Cuban Manhattan and half a glass of Cava.

Most importantly though it seemed that these restaurants were using this as an opportunity to serve less food for only marginally lower prices. The "casual" nature of small plates also allowed for slashing service requirements, as waiters are little more than order-takers and food runners (notice I didn't say "plate clearers") at most of these small-plates restaurants. The demands on the server are mostly physical and very little knowledge or refinement is required. This service mediocrity is sometimes a result of rampant understaffing (Cesar) or a general culture of incompetence (A Cote).

My grander point is that despite the "fun" aspect of sharing food and getting to try a lot of flavors (a form of dining I wholeheartedly endorse), rarely does one spend any less money at a small plates restaurant than one does at a more "refined" dining establishment. You are left with an inferior experience overall because of crowds, noise, and service inconsistencies. My dinners at Cesar, Va de Vi, and Fonda have been some of the most expensive I've had in the East Bay (not to mention I'm out of there in an hour as opposed to close to two hours at a more formal restaurant). And with the lack of other similar establishments within a close stumble, one can't really live the "tapas" life as I'd like to envision it: a drink and a bit of food before moving on to your next stop. I'd love to go out with a friend and spend $100 eating and drinking at four or five locations instead of spending that some amount at one spot, especially a spot where the service sucks and it's too awkward and crowded to linger even if I wanted to. As it is, $100 at Zuni buys a better dinner experience for a better value (not to mention the added bonus of an actual reservation) than $80 at Cesar (or $40 at A Cote).

As an aside, I think that a better integration of our eating and drinking cultures in America--that is the concept of "going out" to both eat and drink continuously throughout the evening rather than dining as either the beginning of a night of bar-hopping or the as a result of the beer munchies at the end of a night of bar-hopping (or both)--will go a long way to improve how we treat alcohol in our society. If you're always eating while you're drinking, you drink more slowly, alcohol is absorbed more evenly, and you probably consume less alcohol overall. Four drinks over four hours of a tapas crawl (drinks more likely to be beer and wine) versus four drinks over two hours at a bar (drinks more likely to be spirits and cocktails). You'll also consume more nutrients (including all-essential sodium), which will go a long way to ameliorate your hangover symptoms the next morning.

But here's the good news!

In Santa Monica, right by the water, I think I've found a spot for a legitimate tapas evening, though so far I've only eaten at one bar, Pintxo.

Pintxo (from the same people who brought Venice the esteemed, Michelin-starred Joe's Restaurant) is the first true tapas bar that I've been to in the U.S. Specifically, it's a style of tapas bar common in the Basque regions of Spain and, to a lesser extent, Catalonia that focuses on fish, cured meats, and chunky sauces served on top of slices of bread. These types of tapas are called "pintxos" from the Basque word for "thorn," originally referring to the small wood skewer that was used to hold the toppings on the bread.

Although the pintxos are served pre-made from a sushi bar-style fridge, there are never more than four or so of any dish in the fridge, so everything is served fresh. Pintxo also has a number of hot dishes, including a plate of pescaditos fritos--a pile of tiny fish dusted in flour, deep fried, and served with romesco--and a decently sized seafood paella. Prices start at $2 for a pair of toothpicks with chunks of avocado, radish, and jicama skewered on them, topping out at $12 for a foie gras parfait. Most of Pintxo's plates are between $4 and $6 and a serving is two individual pintxos.

The food was full of deep rich flavors coupled with a simplicity--only a few ingredients, basic spices, and loads of olive oil. The highlight was a slice of bread topped with chorizo, potatoes, romesco and a tiny sunny side-up quail egg.

As great as the food is, Pintxo's wine list is off the charts. 25 wines by the glass, all Spanish, all frequently changing. Wine's by the glass start at $5 with a huge selection falling under $8, something absolutely unheard of in a restaurant of this quality in the Bay Area. Especially given that even the $5 and $6 wines are quality small production Spanish imports.

So what did this all mean? When I left Pintxo's I was stuffed, had two glasses of wine, and spent about $35 or so. I easily could've had one fewer pintxo and I definitely didn't need the second glass of wine, so a less gluttonous me could've eaten extraordinarily well for about $25.

On those same few blocks of Santa Monica there's Bar Robata, a Japanese small plates bar, Chloe, an eclectic (gimmicky?) bar and lounge, and 3 on Fourth (a higher-end restaurant offering small plates as well as entrees) and several other pubs/bars/taverns that maybe, just maybe, are offering an opportunity for an eat and drink, eat and drink, eat and drink, evening out in California.

I'll find out soon.

Bar Pintxo
109 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, Ca 90401


J. Song said...

I am REALLY excited about Bar Pintxo. You hit on the problem with tapas restaurants: the fact that you get less food for just about the same amount of money!

I'll have to try this place out very soon.

Joon S.

Zack said...

If you're in LA hit up the izakayas in li'l tokyo. Read about them on Chowhound if you like. Chowhound adores izakaya (and so do I). If you're cool with subbing sake and pork belly for European stuff, it's pretty much what you're after.

There's one izakaya in SF but it's pricy/chic like Cesar. Now is your chance!

David J.D. said...

Thanks for the tip.

There's a place in Westwood called Wakasan that's pretty rad. It offers only an 12-course omakase of izakaya food. And it's only 30 bucks for a mountain of food.

Are you talking about O Izakaya in SF? I've been wanting to check that place out.