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Rising to the Tapas 

A new identity and menu focus reinvents a Carrollton café

You don't need to connect very many cultural culinary dots to get from Morocco to Spain, but from Morocco to Spain to Mexico proved a bit too much of a stretch for Fiesta Bistro. Native Moroccan and first-time restaurateur Okasha Belkachem opened Fiesta Bistro in April 2006 with a menu of dishes that seemed separated by a common language. It was a confusion of Spanish and Mexican food, with tacos and paella mixing it up about as gracefully as a flamenco dancer wearing a sombrero. The awkward name didn't help matters, and even though the food was always at least decent I just couldn't see the place making it.

It didn't, and late last year Belkachem and his chef, Foudil Mandi (who ran the Uptown café La Nouvelle for a few years), pulled off a complete transformation of their restaurant, renaming it Café Granada, remodeling the dining room and, most importantly, focusing the menu on Spanish-style cooking, especially tapas. The sum of the changes here have made what was a gawky place into a solidly reliable, accessible and surprisingly affordable café.

It's certainly possible to have a conventionally paced meal here with appetizer, entrée and dessert, but assembling an all-tapas meal is much more rewarding. Even if your party orders quite a lot of tapas, the kitchen seems able to turn them out pretty quickly. So before long, your table will fill with plates and skillets and baskets, which makes for an exciting sort of grazing as you try this, sample that, go back to your favorite and play with different combinations.

The tapas are made with a little less garlic, spices and overall gusto than some of the area's really great tapas places, but they do have their own particular charm, namely their unusually generous portions. Prices average $6, and each dish is large enough to share liberally around a table of four.

For instance, order the lamb chorizo and you get a pair of links plus a pile of French fries, as thin, crisp and salty as anything that ever lured you under the Golden Arches. The chorizo is one of my favorite selections at Café Granada, with the casings crisp from the grill, the meat peppery and spicy with the moist, herbaceous flavor of ground lamb.

Many of the tapas are served on pretty, rectangular plates styled after Spanish tiles, though the most dramatic presentation belongs to the manchego flambé, a small skillet of cheese drenched with tequila and set ablaze. Crusty bread is provided to scoop up the newly melted, liquor-tinged cheese.

This revamped Carrollton-area café is also firmly set on courting the vegetarian dollar. The menu lists meatless paella and at least a dozen vegetarian tapas, including another of my favorite dishes here. Its meatless version of fabada, a stew of fava beans, onions and sun-dried tomatoes, didn't sound all that dazzling on the menu but I have found myself craving it lately. The beans have a very smooth, mellow, earthy taste and are served in a broth with an assertively tart vinegar flavor.

I'm also a fan of the clams Catalan, another broth-filled skillet with small, chewy cherrystone clams steamed in the shell with tomatoes, pine nuts and plenty of black pepper. An unusual selection is called coca de pimiento, which is essentially a small pizza baked on a puff pastry crust, piled with caramelized red peppers, whole olives and chopped artichokes. The same pastry makes another appearance as the cap on a crawfish bisque, which was good " smooth and creamy but much less robust than traditional Louisiana versions.

Ceviche with varying types of fish, steamed mussels in a spicy tomato sauce and something like a Napoleon of grilled eggplant with duxelles were also satisfying. I'd steer clear of the stuffed mushrooms, which tasted dull and undercooked, and the hugely portioned shrimp and crab croquettes, which ended up tasting more like fried breading than discernable seafood.

The entrée choices present a mixed bag and, overall, are less compelling than a good mix of tapas. The paella was loose and soupy, lacking that thick aromatic kick that makes better pans of the stuff so addictive. And the daily fish preparations I tried were pretty ordinary, like sautéed snapper fillet coated in heavy cream sauce. Still, the pollo Á la Basque, a chicken breast stuffed extravagantly with rich, nutty manchego and bright, green sweet peas, was delicious and nicely presented with a creamy, sharp mustard sauce and a sweet balsamic reduction.

There are three lamb dishes here all under $20, including two distinct versions of lamb shank that seem to beg for a chilly evening as their backdrop. In particular, the lamb tagine, a nod to the proprietor's Moroccan heritage, had nice plum flavors shining through the rich, dark meat.

Café Granada's ambiance is subdued and warm, like a nicely appointed tavern. A long padded banquet, tables set with pretty oil lanterns and a collection of sidewalk tables under the limbs of a great Carrollton oak tree all add to the inviting atmosphere. The flamenco guitarist performing Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights doesn't hurt either, nor does the afternoon two-for-one margarita special, a welcome holdover from the old Fiesta days.

click to enlarge Caf Granada brings new focus to tapas, Spanish cooking and some Moroccan dishes. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Caf Granada brings new focus to tapas, Spanish cooking and some Moroccan dishes.
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