Snappy tapas

Feb 2, 2000 at 12:00 am

Spanish cuisine is underrepresented in the metro Detroit area, making Royal Oak’s newborn Sangria most welcome.

The featured dishes, tapas and paella, require a leisurely schedule. Tapas, which translates as little dishes, are designed for lingering. They can be ordered as appetizers, or in lieu of an entrée. With a pitcher of sangria and a good friend, you have the ingredients for an enjoyable evening.

The restaurant’s interior is painted yellow and royal blue, with exposed duct work. The noise level is high.

Sangria is a busy place on the weekend, another of those spots to see and be seen. On a Saturday our reservation had been misplaced, but we were seated promptly in a private but drafty alcove.

We ordered sangria and began to mellow. Our server said he had mixed the sangria himself and it included a bit of brandy. Tapas, priced from $4 to $7, are divided into fria and calientes, cold and hot.

Pincho de solomillo, two sticks of beef kebabs in a black pepper oil, was chargrilled and spicy on the outside but rare inside. Just right.

Another terrific selection was setas sangria, a medley of sautéed mushrooms with lots of garlic in red wine. Queso de cabra al horno (goat cheese) comes in a thick, pizzalike sauce, which was a tasty combination, but the portion of cheese was parsimonious.

Tarteleta de espinacas was not as successful. Described on the menu as "wilted spinach tossed with pine nuts and golden raisins," the spinach was cooked to the color of Army fatigues and nary a pine nut could be found.

Many of these little dishes include savory sauces that you’d like to mop up with a hunk of crusty bread. Unfortunately, the bread was ordinary and served sliced.

Zarauela de marisco is one of a half dozen entrées in addition to paella. Shrimp, calamari, scallops and fish are cooked in a tomato and bay leaf sauce. The seafood was yummy, not overcooked — always a danger at restaurants, especially in a stewlike dish such as this one. I wanted rice as a counterpoint to the sauce, but it is served without accompaniment.

Four types of paella are offered: Seafood, chicken and pork, vegetarian, and mushroom. The menu warns that it takes 40 minutes to prepare, which means it is made to order. It comes to the table in the traditional flat steel pan in which it is cooked. Because the pan is uncovered, the rice has a chewy texture. Our choice of chicken and pork was a nice combination, but I missed the melange of chorizo, shellfish and chicken, as paella is usually served, at least in this country.

That night, I had the feeling that our server was whizzing our food to us as he speeded from one end of the room to the other. I had bargained for waiting on paella, but when it took 15 minutes to get a dessert order, I grew restless.

It looks as if Sangria is set up for sidewalk dining in the summer, an atmosphere perfect for tapas. But you may find the view disconcerting: Across the street is a fitness club with picture windows. In the winter it is a surreal blur of legs and bouncing heads, ghostlike behind the frosty glass. In the summer, the view will be all too clear, which may cut into little indulgences.