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International Menu of Mystery 

The menu at Vega Tapas Cafe is like a handsome stranger with a hard-to-place accent.

Are small plates a passing fad? Or are menus of appetizer-size entrees a permanent feature in a nation of ever-decreasing attention spans? Amid a crowded table, each plate is like a big-budget television commercial that has only 30 seconds to make a lasting impression.

Small plates and Spanish tapas are often considered one and the same, but something got lost in that translation. Tapas are a way of eating, not a serving size. Spaniards move from bar to bar, grabbing a drink and a nibble of food at each spot. If a crowd of friends is prowling the Spanish streets, tapas can also be ordered as large plates called "raciones."

Vega Tapas Cafe, despite its name, is more a restaurant of small plates than tapas. Vega serves a few classic Spanish tapas, such as tortilla a la espa–ola or slices of cured Serrano ham, but the kitchen shows no allegiance to any one flag. The menu at Vega Tapas Cafe is like a handsome stranger with a hard-to-place accent: ceviche from Latin America, couscous and spices from North Africa, and sweetbreads and foie gras that show an affection for France. It's an international menu of mystery.

The portions at Vega are more than an individual bite but hardly designed to be shared. Instead of a plate of small items that can be distributed around a table, most of Vega's dishes look like a traditional appetizer or a miniature main course. Some, like the hanger steak, even include a starch and a vegetable. Next time I eat at Vega, I might order two helpings of the hanger steak, which is served over delicious horseradish-mashed potatoes circled by grilled Vidalia onions, and call it a meal.

Reading Vega's globetrotting menu is like paging through a guidebook before a trip abroad. I started to anticipate the exotic flavors and wondered how I could ever taste them all. Too often, however, the small plates were better in my imagination than when they arrived on the table. A dish of rare tuna rubbed with coriander and served cold over a tomato relish tasted flat. A little acid, a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon, would have helped. The broiled oysters topped with dates and Manchego cheese fell on the other extreme. The oysters looked wonderful resting on a bed of blue glass marbles instead of rock salt. All I could taste, unfortunately, was the sweet date spread. I would never have guessed that cheese was in the mix and could only identify the oysters by their texture.

When everything comes together at Vega, the results are deeply satisfying. A simple plate of marinated mushrooms and grilled asparagus in vinaigrette, a standard Spanish tapa, made me wish the kitchen would turn out more traditional dishes. A squid steak was grilled until tender, which is no easy feat. A friend of Tunisian ancestry was reminded of childhood meals when he tasted the lamb tagine, a North African dish of couscous and roasted lamb seasoned with almonds and cilantro.

Some dishes were outstanding. The grilled Moroccan pork had a faintly sweet glaze balanced with a sharp horseradish sour cream. It was on a bed of flash-fried spinach with an unexpected texture crisp as dry leaves. Steamed mussels were served in a white wine and butter sauce that was thick with shallots, capers and dill. The dill was the ideal bridge between the rich butter and the bite of the capers. Almost every dessert, like the rice pudding topped with a caramelized cherry glaze or the poached pear in a saffron sauce, was memorable and unique.

Vega's citrus-colored decor, lime-green walls in the bar and orange in the dining room, manages to be fashionable without intimidating. The wine and extensive sherry list is reasonably priced and the service professional. Each plate was artfully arranged. Vega Tapas Cafe set my expectations high --Êand I discovered at least one incredible dish each time I ate there. Yet I expected to be wowed more often.

Why did I often walk away a little disappointed? Most restaurants are good rather than dazzling, so was I holding Vega to an unreasonable standard? Maybe so; a restaurant with a menu of small plates invites greater scrutiny. Still, eating a meal of small plates can be like flipping through hundreds of cable channels. No need to commit to any dish; if the few bites on the plate are less than delicious, just move on to the next item.

click to enlarge The Vega kitchen shows no allegiance to any one flag: - local ingredients such as oysters appear on small plates - next to dishes from Latin America, North Africa and - France. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The Vega kitchen shows no allegiance to any one flag: local ingredients such as oysters appear on small plates next to dishes from Latin America, North Africa and France.
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