Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Savory Spanish holiday

Posted By on Wed, Dec 20, 2000 at 12:00 AM

Picture this in your local Holiday Inn: Three performers file onto a small stage. The guitarist bends over his instrument and begins to pick out a distinctive rhythm. The dancers, dressed in long flared skirts, begin to tap their heels, then to clap. Mari Montes calls out, "Ole!" and accents the guitar with castanets as her sister Lisa dances that sensuous, elegant dance of southern Spain, the flamenco.

It takes a lot of energy to transform the cavernous Holiday Inn dining room into a Spanish posada (inn), but if you stay focused on the Montes sisters, you can believe. It is a treat to watch these professional performers over a dinner of tapas and paella, as we did on a recent Saturday night.

Ron Wilson and José Montes (the dancers' father) opened Alegrias two months ago; the word means happiness. Mari and Lisa Montes learned Spanish dancing from their grandmother, Dame Maria Del Carmen, whose company Grupo España has performed internationally.

Mari says of the flamenco: "It's a powerful way to express yourself, very fiery."

Fiery indeed, and so appropriately paired with the astringent flavors of Spanish food. Tapas, the little plates of appetizerlike treats that Spanish bar patrons enjoy with a glass of red wine or sherry, are available in 26 varieties. But they are more than little plates here. Order two and you won't have any room for an entrée. Smaller, and cheaper, ones would have allowed us to sample a greater variety.

There is an emphasis on meat and seafood in the tapas offerings. The house specialty is a plate with a paper-thin slice of Serrano ham, dry tangy manchego goat cheese, and circles of chorizo, a spicy Spanish sausage.

Empanadas ($5) are tasty pastry pockets filled with seasoned beef and chicken. In queso de cabra gratinado ($7.50), the dry goat cheese is softened in a pizzalike arrangement of toast and grilled tomato. Chistorra y champiniones a la plancha ($6) combines mushrooms with little rounds of Spanish sausage in a wine sauce.

Less successful was a seafood special ($8) which combined squid, shrimp, and scallops with mushrooms and chorizo; this was salted so heavily I couldn't eat it.

Three varieties of paella ($16-$19) are offered, one with chicken and seafood, one all seafood, and the last vegetarian. Paella is seasoned with saffron and baked in an open, flat-bottomed pan, a process that leaves the rice slightly crunchy.

There are a variety of seafood, meat and poultry entrées — some authentically Spanish, others classic Americana with Spanish titles, such as "Corte de Lom o a la Parilla," which is described as a grilled 11-ounce New York strip steak.

Chef Roberto Caceres, who trained in Barcelona, arranges for delivery of many of the food items, so you know you are getting the authentic varieties of chorizo, manchego and Serrano ham, not to mention the saffron, which is used in great quantities. Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, but indispensable to Spanish cuisine.

Some of the entrées are served in lovely Spanish pottery. A pitcher of sangria (a little too sweet, but nicely spiced) served in the same simple pottery, is $15. The wine list focuses on reds, many of them from Spain or Chile, most available by the glass. They go well with Spanish cuisine.

Desserts include a classic flan, very rich, sitting in a pool of caramelized sugar with its lingering smoky flavor. Mari and Lisa Montes, along with guitarist Mark Ferguson, perform on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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