Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Big Flavors in small bites: Loco tapas

GLOBE SOUTH | DINING OUT

April 18, 2010

Little plates of different and delicious dishes — that’s for me.

It’s been a few years now since the word tapas began filtering out from the cities into the minds of diners everywhere. Imported from Spain, tapas are small dishes designed to be eaten while relaxing with wine. And while American tapa restaurants offer classical Spanish dishes — patatas bravas, gambas (shrimp), croquetas de jamón (ham croquettes), many chefs can’t resist offering their own interpretations inspired from various cuisines.

The tapa is evolving into as much a style of eating as it is exemplary of Spanish cuisine: Witness the rise of “small plates’’ selections on menus everywhere.

Loco Tapas & Wine Bar is a great example of a place that serves authentic Spanish tapas and more. Executive chef and owner James Messinger discovered tapas through a love of Spanish wines that led him to Spain after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. Soon after opening his restaurant three years ago, he added some main courses and a selection of grilled meats for those who think tapas aren’t filling enough.

The casual space is divided in half with a lounge and bar on one side and a dining room on the other. Its red walls, arches, and low lighting evoke the world of the bullfighter and flamenco dancer, and the leather couches and low tables in the lounge invite a literally laid-back tapas experience if you’re in that kind of mood.

The smoked chicken and ham croquettes with lemon aioli ($6) are light but crispy deep-fried pillows filled with a creamy, smoky, ham-flavored interior. The lemon aioli dipping sauce is piercingly flavorful.

Our server nicely orchestrated the arrival of our many dishes, pairing various tapas well. The garlic bread with gorgonzola fondue ($7) arrived at the same time as the Mac ’n’ manchego ($9). This macaroni was the only disappointment of the evening (little flavor), but it improved when dipped into the fondue.

Seared pork tenderloin with sweet potato puree and port reduction ($10) was tender and satisfying. And the seared beef tenderloin ($12) — a roasted potatoes and caramelized red onion confit at its side — was equally good. These dishes aren’t tiny: three of us have a couple small pieces each.

On principle, I love anywhere that serves a dish in which slivers of garlic are large enough to be seen, and the gambas con almendras ($6), shrimp with almonds, reinforced my crude affection. The garlic was cooked lightly enough, in a thin butter sauce, to retain some of its raw flavor. Nice.

Among the menu’s deviations from classical tapas are a half-dozen main courses and about 10 grilled items. The grilled choices range from filet mignon, to diver scallops (these are fished by divers rather than gathered in metal nets). Each comes with a choice of one each of five rubs and five sauces.

We ordered two grill items: the 5-ounce skirt steak ($9, with celery salt, garlic, and pepper with chimichurri sauce), and the 12-ounce bone-in filet ($45, with a simple sea salt and pepper rub with gorgonzola sauce.)

Both were delicious, medium rare per our request. I liked the skirt steak just as much as the costly filet. Most of Loco’s beef is Meyer natural beef — sourced from animals certified to have been humanely raised on a vegetarian diet without the use of antibiotics or hormones. The restaurant also gets much of its produce in season from area growers. (Messinger has run a catering business — Crazy Chefs — since 2001 and knows his way around ordering.)

We were served the two grill items along with the pepita-crusted diver scallops ($12). “We thought they’d go well together with the steak and filet,’’ our waitress said, and they did: sweet with pomegranate glaze and sprinkled with seeds from the crimson fruit.

A perfect sautéed spinach hot tapas special was very nicely seasoned (although the slice of grilled polenta beneath it didn’t taste like anything much).

The chocolate flan is a hybrid flan-mousse ($7), smothered in whipped cream, and the best dessert I’ve had in ages. A combo order ($5) of churros, apple and plain ones, also was great. The hot, fried-dough confections were inch-wide sticks creatively served standing up in a glass. They came with two small pots of hot sauce: caramel and chocolate. Gorgeous.

Loco may be Spanish for crazy, but in this case, it means crazy good. Chalk up another great offering for Boston’s south suburbs.

Loco Tapas & Wine Bar
520 Foundry St., Easton
Wednesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m., Lounge open until midnight
Accessible to the handicapped
Major credit cards accepted
www. locotapas.com
508-230-5626

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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