Pricey bites

Andaluz needs variety and lower prices to claim tapas authenticity

After a month of dining almost exclusively on tapas in Andalucia, Spain's southern province, I naturally beat a hasty path to Atlanta's first attempt at an authentic tapas bar, Andaluz (903 Peachtree St., 404-875-7013). The restaurant's opening, the project of affable Gladys Parada of Seeger's, has been the object of some anxious speculation.
How, one couldn't help wondering at the outset, would Andaluz make a go of it at the bizarre location? Set back from the street in a very re-done convenience store, Andaluz and its neighbor Celebrity Cafe sit before a painfully hideous fountain in a badly designed parking lot that I suppose is meant to suggest a plaza. Negotiating the parking lot requires an education in abstract geometry.
The interior itself is controversial. I rather like it. It's certainly not a warm and woody tapas bar festooned with hams. Like much of the cuisine itself, the interior is artier and more formal than you expect of a tradition that is fundamentally casual. It's something to see.
The front wall is mainly glass and the rear one, which soars high above, is decorated with a huge mural of folks at a bullfighting ring. There are paramecium-shaped sconces redder than Carmen's lips and splashes of colorful tile here and there. The dining room is fronted by a long bar where you can, in semi-authentic fashion, snack and drink.
Parada has imported her chef from Barcelona. Pleasant and chatty, Pepe Linares has talent and Parada admits she's reining him in. "If Pepe had his way, the menu would be very wild," Parada told me when I did a bit of grousing that the menu contains nothing very challenging or new. Although the menu here is authentic, it is most definitely geared to the American palate — and pocketbook. We've spent at least $60 during our visits. That's a lot of dinero for a snack cuisine. In Spain, that much money would buy you a major gourmet meal. In fact, it should buy you a lot more here, shouldn't it? Oh well.
Part of the pricing problem — despite some reports to the contrary — is that Parada and Linares aren't strictly serving tapas. Tapas are very small plates of a few bites and they are dirt-cheap in Spain. Andaluz instead is serving raciones — larger plates meant to be shared by several people. This isn't always predictable. For example a pincho moruno, a kebab of grilled, chopped lamb headily spiced with cardamon and a bit of mint, is barely sufficient for one despite its price of $6.50.
But order mussels steamed in a confit of onions, garlic and peppers and you'll get a huge portion whose $6.50 price seems like a bargain. Serrano ham, the favorite dish of Andalucia, is frighteningly priced at $10.50, but it turns out to be a fairly large portion served with bread topped with chopped tomatoes. Don't think it's sufficient as an entree, however.
The gazpacho, a blended version, is totally authentic, delicious and appropriately cheap ($3). Grilled asparagus, anointed in balsamic vinegar, are nicely charred and salty ($4.50). An unexpectedly delicious dish is a little ramekin of chorizos poached in white wine ($7). Grilled shrimp, seasoned with garlic and parsley, are so delicious you won't bother to fussily remove all the shells ($7.50).
Some dishes — seared foie gras ($12.50) and beef tenderloin wrapped in phyllo ($6) — just seem plainly harebrained to me. I'd rather have the plate of simple manchego cheese, despite its eerie dollop of tapenade on the side ($4.50). (I do appreciate that Andaluz offers complimentary olives served in bowls like peanuts. But they are absurdly small to be skewered with the toothpicks provided. I'd rather pay for some authentic fat olives.)
You can easily and expensively fill up on the tapas here, but there is one entree — a paella. It's $15 for two and requires a 25-minute wait. Unfortunately — and it pains me to say so — this paella is not worth the wait. It is made exclusively with seafood and begs for some sausage and chicken. The saffron-yellow rice was undercooked when I visited, and the whole dish begged for the deeper flavor some meat would add.
Perhaps the one dish here that I was surprised to see was a tapa of esqueixada. It is made of fresh salted cod, tomatoes and a red onion consassé ($6.50). Linares' version is artfully served in a little cake, but we'd like to see it extended to an entree-sized portion of the type we kept ordering all over Barcelona. The Spanish do amazing things with cod. I hope Linares will demonstrate some of them.
Dessert here is pan y chocolate — two bites of toast topped with chocolate and salt ($2.50). It's a novelty here and forgotten within seconds of its consumption. Decent cafe con leche is available.
What's missing? A huge amount. There's not a single piece of fried fish on the menu (that's almost unforgivable), no anchovies, no sardines, no croquetas, no tortillas, no octopus, no potatoes in aioli, no broad beans, no spinach and garbanzos, no stews, no casseroles. "We just aren't sure how Atlanta would receive those kinds of dishes," Parada told me. I feel, to the contrary, if the restaurant is going to survive, it's going to have to broaden its horizons. Eclipse di Luna has had no trouble selling kinkier tapas, even though its ambitions are less authentically Spanish.
Andaluz is hosting flamenco nights (call for the schedule). A woman associated with the Atlanta Ballet performs and the Spanish community has packed the place. Recorded music is generally pretty good — mainly flamenco nuevo — but next time I visit, I'm carrying Parada some Carmen Linares tapes.

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