Tapas, anyone?

| February 12, 2004
The hairdresser munched soulfully upon his rumaki, murmuring softly between sips of Cotes-du-rhone, whose sharp red fingers invaded the fatty nooks and crannies of the half-masticated morsel in his mouth. An empty skewer dangled absently in his left hand. Across the table, the TV reporter floated dreamily on a similar cloud of oral pleasure. Her husband looked like he was praying.

Up and down the table, everyone was waving the white flag. And then, the buzz began in earnest. “I like things that surprise my mouth—in a good way, that is,” said the TV reporter, “but I never would have ordered chicken liver.” The hairdresser, for once, was speechless. His wife glowed, savoring the skewered chicken liver wrapped in bacon and baked in a sweet soy glaze.

Before the rumaki, we had been a table of people with nothing in common other than the fact that we had all been invited to the Raven Café to sample the pleasures of the new tapas menu. But after the rumaki, things were different. We bonded around our shared breaking of the liver-is-gross paradigm, coupled with unexpected and giddy surprise at how good it actually was…Or maybe it was the fact that this was the fifth tapas of the evening, each with its own accompanying wine selection. The table was already littered with wineglasses in various states of disrepair, and we still had so far to go.

Tapas always remind me of mom, because her favorite way of interacting with a menu has always been to order lots of appetizers and share them around. I was still a lad when mom first learned of tapas, and she was quick to drag me out to a Spanish restaurant, where we eagerly indulged in multiple plates of savory fingerfoods.

In Spanish, tapas literally means “lid,” or “cover.” The original edible tapas were pieces of bread and sausage placed atop glasses of wine to keep out flies and dust. Nowadays, tapas are a staple of Spanish gastronomy. You get together with your amigos, hit the tapas bar from 10 until midnight, and then go party at the club until mid-morning. Or by day, have tapas for lunch with your family.

As Spanish cuisine has risen to the cutting edge of world flavor, tapas have emigrated to the swankiest culinary ports in the world. But if you aren’t swank enough for, say, Seattle, or if you can’t make it to Spain, there’s always the Raven. The cafe’s new tapas menu—along with its new beer and wine license—make it the undisputed tapas capital of Missoula.

After the rumaki came a plate of latkes: spiced potato pancakes that took me back to my Eastern European roots. Oy Vey! The latkes were crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and served with a fiesty apple/raisin chutney and a well-chosen glass of Christom Pinot Gris, which Aaron, the Wine Minister, informed us contains a combination of high-elevation grapes from Washington and low-elevation grapes from Oregon.

The only problem with the latkes was that I ate too many of them. This wouldn’t have been a problem were it not for the fact that I still had to contend with the likes of halloumi (pan-fried sheep’s cheese, served with cucumber/mint salsa) and a portabella brie baked in a puff pastry and served in a sweet basil cream sauce.

At this point, the mademoiselle across the table (who grew up in France) was as distraught at having eaten that extra spring roll as I was at having had that extra latke. There was simply not enough space. I clinked my glass of Ravenswood with her glass of Monte Negro (a wild glass of berries and soil), and we toasted our bloated predicament. The mushroom sauté with herbed goat cheese sure didn’t help, but it went down great with the Ravenswood.

Then came the lamb medallions, which, I should point out, are not currently on the menu. But this is par for the course at the Raven. “We have a boutique atmosphere,” says Rose Habib, co-owner. “We’re always ready to try new things.” Look for the tapas menu to respond to what the customers like, whatever new ideas the cooks get their hands on, and whatever’s in season.

The table was now covered by a confetti of mostly empty little plates and wineglasses. We pushed on, slowing, but still going. “I rode my Harley from Witchita,” explained a writer to my left. His lady, meanwhile, cruised through a spinach salad of blue cheese, sliced apple, tart cranberry vinaigrette and candied walnuts, each bite needing the next like wine needs cheese. The hairdresser and the TV reporter were still discussing the rumaki, and how to compel innocent diners to order it.

“Just don’t tell them it’s liver,” he said. “Yeah,” she said, “just say it’s chicken.” E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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