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Straight to the Tapas 

It's impossible to be stingy at RioMar's lunch. The small plates of tapas -- the sublime bar food of Spain -- arrive at the table as soon as the kitchen finishes them. Staring at a plate of hot bacalaitos, deep-fried pillows of salt cod drizzled with homemade mayonnaise, I couldn't resist taking a bite, but I knew that not sharing with my hungry companions might end a friendship or two.

That's the first thought that comes to mind with the irregular arrival of plump white anchovies marinated in vinegar, strips of the highly prized Spanish cured ham and empanadas, savory turnovers stuffed with tuna, olives and thick slices of garlic. The procession of tapas breaks the lockstep rhythm of dining -- appetizer, main course, dessert. An ordinary lunch with co-workers feels like a celebration. Sitting in the warm room with its shades of yellow and blue, we sampled each other's tapas and ranked our favorites.

Chef Adolfo García discovered Spain during a summer of internships in the early 1990s when, even in New York City, the best Spanish food you could find in the United States was a poorly done paella. "When I got there it was a big surprise," García says. "They cook the food, they put it on a plate and they send it out. No paprika on the rim. No chives standing up out of the eye of the fish. It was an experience in restraint and respect for tradition."

When he created the tapas lunch menu at RioMar last summer, García applied the lessons he learned in Spain. His restraint shows in the simple preparation of roasted eggplant, a meaty log of eggplant marinated in olive oil and garlic served with three thin wedges of Manchego cheese that add a salty tang. With the Palacios chorizo, a buttery cured-pork sausage spiced with paprika, García recognizes that slicing the sausage is all the preparation needed.

As both a Latino and a native New Orleanian, García adds touches of his own heritage to the Spanish culinary tradition. A perfectly cooked hanger steak draped in onions and green peppers rests on thick spears of yuca, a South American root vegetable with the satisfying starch of a potato and a fluffy interior. His New Orleans upbringing appears in the Spanish muffaletta, a Cuban-style pressed sandwich filled with Spanish olives, ham, cheese and chorizo.

In the extensive menu of tapas, García almost never misfires. The flavors are bright without being showy, and the predominant Spanish seasonings -- garlic, olive oil, paprika and saffron -- provide unity across a meal that could easily include a dozen different small dishes. Only the patatas bravas (literally "brave potatoes") were disappointing, with the coating of tomato sauce dulling the crisp edge of the deep fried potato chunks.

At night, García breaks from the Spanish tradition and focuses more on seafood. "It's a combination of classical cooking techniques from a Spanish and Latin-American perspective," García says. "It's basically just the sum of my experiences." He sears the skin of the "unilateral" salmon fillet until it resembles the crust of a good steak, places it on a bed of bulgur wheat as creamy as risotto, and surrounds it with roasted mushroom and almost-candy sweet pearl onions. The plate of perfectly seared scallops initially seemed oddly matched with a side of lentils, but the simple addition of coarsely chopped red onions gave this sometimes monotonous side dish a variety of texture and taste worthy of the scallops. Several tapas, such as the bacalaitos and ceviches, reappear as appetizers on the dinner menu, while others grow to entree-size portions.

A small, clearly described wine list, heavy on Spanish and California wines, includes some surprises, like whites from the northern Basque region of Spain or the dry, slightly carbonated Vinho Verde from Portugal. Most wines are available by the glass, and the staff was quick to offer tastes.

The desserts, all Latin American in flavor, are heavy and rich. Tres leches de coco, a white cake soaked in evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream, achieves a remarkable texture somewhere between a solid and a liquid, like eating a slice of milkshake topped with icing. "Margarita's unforgettable flan," covered in dulce de leche caramel, was wonderfully dense and creamy. Only the warm banana empanada -- two bananas in a phyllo dough wrapper that was gummy and undercooked below and too hard on top -- was forgettable. Sitting alone at RioMar one afternoon, I mopped up the broth of my zarzuela, a Spanish seafood stew rich with saffron, and admired the geometric patterns on the Moorish tile that lines the wooden bar. Wouldn't it be great to stand at that bar late in the evening sipping a glass of dry sherry with a plate of empanadas? If only RioMar served a full menu of tapas all night and the Warehouse District had a string of nearly identical restaurants, I could have a real tapeo, walking from one tapas bar to another, sampling dishes at each location. There is only one RioMar, though, and as much as I enjoy the tapas at lunch, I wouldn't want to lose Chef García's more innovative cuisine in the evening.

click to enlarge Diners can make a habit out of the small-plate delights - at RIOMAR, and then make plans for the Mediterranean- - inspired seafood dishes for dinner. "It's basically just the - sum of my experiences," RIOMAR Chef-owner Adolfo - Garcia says of his approach, in which he provides a - Spanish and Latin-American spin on classical cooking - techniques. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Diners can make a habit out of the small-plate delights at RIOMAR, and then make plans for the Mediterranean- inspired seafood dishes for dinner. "It's basically just the sum of my experiences," RIOMAR Chef-owner Adolfo Garcia says of his approach, in which he provides a Spanish and Latin-American spin on classical cooking techniques.
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