While common usage suggests otherwise, the terms "small plates" and "tapas" are not interchangeable. Strictly speaking, tapas are small plates of Spanish foods, often as small as two bites. Laurentino's offers a brief but traditional tapas menu, Marisol hosts a tapas happy hour, and RioMar just instituted tapas lunches. But abiding by the definition of "tapas" found in Lonely Planet's World Food Spain -- "small portions of hot or cold food served in a bar" -- no place in New Orleans reproduces Spain's tapas culture like Upstairs at Mimi's.
Nothing on the list of 18 plates would appear out of place along Madrid's Cava Baja, a lane crammed with tavern-restaurants where the hams still have hooves and where sherry is drunk like water. Upstairs at Mimi's harbors the correct, casual tapas bar spirit, too -- it's a place where you may crowd around the dark wood bar for an olive oil-drenched nibble, or linger at a table over several rounds of drinks and Chef-owner Joachin Rodas' tapas.
One Friday night in particular emulated the controlled chaos of a typical tapas bar. Guests packed into the available seats so tightly that when one woman plummeted from a barstool she threatened to produce a domino effect (it may take another half-century for Americans to embrace the Spanish predilection for standing around a bar and eating). Rob Wagner's loud and melodic live jazz saxophone vibrated like Enrique Morente's raspy modern flamenco cranked full-tilt. You had two choices when ordering: You could ravage your vocal chords or lip-sync. The single waiter seemed to drown in his vintage clothing, probably an effect of the 50-yard dash between the kitchen and most tables.
The gustatory climax that night came in mild, red pequillo peppers overstuffed with herbed goat cheese. The white fish ceviche was also nice and summery, the fish delicately "cooked" in lime juice and further refreshed with cilantro and red onion. Pinchos de carne are fried cocktail meatballs spiced to encourage beer drinking and drizzled with tangy, parsley-green chimichurri sauce. No tapas meal should proceed without a plateful of olives; here the selection is as varied as a Whitman's Sampler, some frog-green and tart, others dark and bitter.
Only when I'm overdrinking does my sweet tooth recede. May I always be so lucky in those moments to find a dessert like the almond-filled dates plated with wild-tasting blue Cabrales; the platter glistened with honey, to be ignored or used to mellow the strong, salty cheese. Another dessert, a puck of fried rice pudding soaking in a coconut syrup, was sweet in every sense of the word.
Literally upstairs from the Faubourg Marigny watering hole called Mimi's, the tapas bar has a wine selection that draws from Spain, Chile and California, I think. It's a spoken list and therefore a communication challenge under normal barroom conditions. You may as well just shout "red!" or "white!" or "pink!" (as non-Spanish speakers tend to do in Spain -- it works). Then you hope you'll end up with the fun Spanish rose, the thick and fruity Pinot Gris or the mineral-tinged Albarino. Wine comes in tall tumblers, not spindly glasses. The latter would be difficult to grasp with oily fingers, and the scrolls of Serrano ham and the Catalan black peppercorn chorizo are wonderfully oily finger foods.
Ask for a Spanish beer, and servers ply the Mexican selection; sherry, a tapas bar staple, also seems to be off the radar.
While the tapas here are well-conceived, only half of them wow, and a fraction of them could use a kinder touch. Rubber band-like calamari came in a fishy cream sauce that even overpowered the dish's chorizo. Both the tortilla Espanola (like a potato frittata) and the patatas bravas (roasted potatoes with a piquant tomato sauce) had the right idea but were deflated and sad -- as if they had grown bored waiting to be ordered. I enjoyed the gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic), until the next day's raw garlic hangover.
Most plates are fairly priced, ranging between $4 and $5.50, except the butter lettuce salad, which contains just three leaves. It's not always rocking in this room of exposed brick, wood floors and street lamplight. Early on a weeknight every window table was free, and every open window overlooking the inexplicably romantic urban neighborhood channeled gusts of real air. Just two women in the far corner appeared giddy to be escaping their children. They laughed and snacked and drank when I entered, and they continued to laugh, snack and drink when I left two hours later. That's the spirit.