Stomping grounds

A Spanish feeling overtakes a former Canton diner

Feb 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

I wanted so much to love Tasca de Plata, and in a way I do — the Montes sisters as they tap out flamenco rhythms are charming; even the notion of a Spanish restaurant with a flamenco show sited in Canton makes a person want to root for the underdog.

The site was formerly the large Central City Diner, complete with red-and-chrome counter stools. It's as far from a restaurant in Spain as you can imagine, and owner José Montes has done his best by arranging Spanish shawls on the windows, decorating the booths with blue-and-yellow tiles, each with the name of a Spanish city, and showing stunning photographs of his mother, a flamenco dancer from New York, on the walls.

What's more, his daughters Lisa Montes and Julie Mariano, who were taught by their grandmother, dance flamenco on Friday and Saturday nights. With their perfect Spanish faces, slim red gowns and clicking castanets, the girls attract big parties. The crowd gets off on seeing something different, intense and faintly exotic. There's a convivial feeling; although the dancers know their stuff, there's still a feeling that they could be Canton girls, and everyone's rooting for them.

Rational accommodations to middle-American sensibilities have been made. The show is at 8 p.m., which in Spain would be way pre-geezer hour. (Spain hasn't yet succumbed to the insistent tempo of neoliberalism; friends who visited Barcelona recently said when they arrived at a restaurant for dinner at 10:30, they'd be the only ones there.)

And diner touches remain, such as soft bread, butter in foil packets, straws with your ice water. There's even a Mexican section of the menu, with burritos and chimichangas. Our helpful waitress recommended a tapas order of beef strips, mushrooms and caramelized onions in a Rioja sauce. When we seemed to hesitate, she reassured us, "You can get it without the mushrooms and onions."

Do most of Montes's customers prefer their Spanish food without onions or mushrooms? Do they rely on the familiarity of tacos to get them through the unfamiliarity of flamenco?

No, the tapas and the paellas are the dishes nearly everyone orders. I just wish they were tastier. On two visits I found only a couple of tapas and a dessert to love, and a disappointing paella and seafood stew.

The tapas list is 30 items long, with both hot and cold selections. Servings are large for tapas (another American adaptation); two people could make a meal of four or five of them. We liked octopus in tomato sauce flambéed with brandy; it was rich and complex, with lots of mushrooms and lots of sauce for sopping. My vegetarian friend swore by garbanzos with spinach, though I found the taste distinctly odd, neither chickpeas nor spinach.

Lamb meatballs had an interesting sauce, and thankfully were spicy rather than minty, though the menu advertised mint. But mushrooms sautéed in garlic, wine and olive oil — a simple dish — was anemic, with none of the four flavors making a case for itself. In a potatoes-and-chorizo dish (a la Riojana), the sausage was tough.

Still, there are many other tapas to choose from, and perhaps a diner could make better choices than we did: shrimp in garlic sauce, fried potatoes with aioli, traditional omelet with potatoes and onion, marinated squid, tuna pasties. On reflection, the simpler cold tapas could have been the way to go (though the cheese plate we tried was underwhelming and served too cool): a plate of Serrano with olives, white anchovies in vinaigrette (they look like sardines and are milder than cured, canned anchovies) and olives stuffed with anchovies.

Entrées include lamb chops, grilled chicken, shrimp, salmon and lobster. We chose zarzuela de mariscos, a "medley" of scallops, shrimp, squid, mussels, clams and fish. The thick sauce was off-putting, an undifferentiated spicy.

Seafood paella, which takes 40 minutes to prepare, didn't redeem the chef's reputation. The rice was clumpy, the seafood pedestrian, the fish dry. Perhaps the chicken paella would have been fattier and therefore tastier. There's also a vegetarian version, with artichokes and hearts of palm.

Tasca de Plata has an inexpensive wine list, mostly Spanish, with some good finds. A glass of light and bright Abrazo Gamacha is $6; a very drinkable bottle of Protocolo Tempranillo only $20.

Most patrons, though, go for the $25 large pitchers of Sangria. The house recipe uses cinnamon and red and yellow apples.

One of the best dishes we tasted was rice pudding, made by Senor Montes himself. The rice is firm and its surroundings infinitely creamy. Montes also makes flan.

If I went back to Tasca de Plata for the shared feeling of flamenco conviviality, I'd designate a driver, order a bottle of vino tinto, a string of tapas, and dessert, and cheer as the Montes sisters gave it their all.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].