Some of the world’s most elegant and refined cuisine has its genesis in very humble circumstances. Today, Spanish tapas are widely regarded as sophisticated and exotic, but they didn’t start off that way. In fact, Spanish tapas are an excellent embodiment of the axiom that when life hands you lemons, you should make lemonade. The words “tapa” (singular) or “tapas” (plural) are derived from the Spanish word “tapar,” which means “to cover.” In Spanish, a tapa is also the literal term for a “lid.” How the word “tapas” became the term used to describe a popular epicurean craze is an interesting tale.
It’s well established that in Spain, it’s traditional for many people to take an afternoon respite from the rigors of their daily lives and jobs to visit the local tavern or inn for snacks and refreshment. In Old Spain, snacks and refreshment are inseparable, a tradition dating back to the Castilian king Alfonso the Wise who decreed that no wine was to be served in any inn throughout Castile unless accompanied by something to eat. This precaution was to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on an empty stomach.
Observing that glasses of wine or sherry served to patrons attracted fruit flies, bartenders began covering the top of the glass with a piece of bread to prevent the pesky insects from doing the breaststroke in the wine. In time, each tavern concocted its own signature toppings for the bread. For the most part, the covers or “tapas” were relatively simple–ham or anchovies, for example, but eventually, those simple glass covers evolved into such creative and sophisticated dishes that what is essentially Spanish bar food now rivals any of the world’s most renowned cuisines.
In modern day Spain, tapas are not only a gastronomic custom, they are a social or communal event. Taverns are clustered in close proximity to one another, making it easy for patrons to hop from bar to bar sampling the specialty of the house at each. In America, tapas have become popular as a meal option–eating a number of appetizer-sized plates to constitute an entire meal. As in Spain, American tapas restaurants and bars attract groups who, by sharing dishes, can sample a wide variety of foods for a relative pittance.
The concept of tapas made its way to the United States several decades ago to some (mostly local) acclaim. In some American cities, an announcement of the launch of a new tapas bar was often mistaken as yet another “topless bar” opening up. Ultimately it took the culinary and marketing genius of Jose Andres to launch the country’s first widely heralded and highly successful tapas restaurant, Jaleo in Washington, D.C. Since Jaleo’s opening in 1993, tapas bars and restaurants have taken off throughout the fruited plain.
In the Land of Enchantment, Santa Fe, which has long embraced its Spanish heritage, has long been home to two restaurants which offer tapas–the venerable El Farol and relative newcomer (fifteen years) El Meson. That dynamic duo became a terrific triumvirate in 2006 with the launch of La Boca. The Duke City’s first notable entry into the tapas arena was probably Gecko’s Bar & Tapas under the auspices of chef Jay Wulf. Since then a number of restaurants have offered, sometimes rather loosely, an interpretation of tapas.
July, 2009 saw the introduction of Cosmo Tapas, fittingly making its home in what many consider to be the Duke City’s cultural and social hub, the Nob Hill District. Situated in the venue that previously housed the Martini Grille, Cosmo Tapas is, as its name implies, a cosmopolitan and hip urban experience–ironically with a storefront facing the historical mother road, Route 66. Its launch was greeted excitedly by critics and diners alike, many hailing it as a much needed change of pace for the city. When she told me about her first visit to Cosmo shortly after it opened, Melissa Watrin gushed, “you have GOT to go to Cosmo Tapas. The best meal I’ve had in a really long time.” Despite her effusive praise, it would be a while before my inaugural visit.
Look overhead as you enter and you’ll espy one of the most unique “chandeliers” you’ll ever see. Instead of crystalline composition, the chandelier is crafted from silverware–spoons, forks and knives dangling above you. The dining room’s walls are festooned with still-life, near photo-quality paintings depicting decanters of oil and vinegar and other restaurant necessities. Undulating mesh fabric drapes from the ceiling. Linen tablecloth drapes over each table with folded napkins nattily in place. The best seat in the house on a cold winter day is the table nearest the fireplace and with a view of Central Avenue.
Add the term “family-friendly” to the restaurant’s family owned and family operated modus vivendi. That’s family-friendly both from the sense that diners of all ages will all feel welcome at the restaurant and that the family which owns the restaurant is as friendly as any restaurateurs in the Duke City. As Melissa told me they would, both Guillermo Loubriel and his wife-partner Cecilia Kido visited our table to ensure our dining experience was as good as it could be. Their son Leo was even more attentive, personally delivering every item we ordered.
When they conceived the idea of Cosmo Tapas, Guillermo and Cecilia determined to showcase a menu which would reflect their veritable melting pot of cultures and not necessarily subscribe to a true Spanish tapas template. Guillermo is Puerto Rican while Cecilia, a native Chilean is half-Japanese and part Spanish and French. The menu, a magnificent mishmash of culturally diverse dishes, succeeds wildly. Moreover, the shared dining experience succeeds wildly. Diners have embraced the concept of ordering a number of dishes and sharing them.
The tapas menu actually begins with three Spanish sampler platters–a Spanish cheese platter, a Spanish charcuterie plate and a Jamon Iberico plate. The latter is one of those every-once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime indulgences to which you should treat yourself just because you’re worth it. Jamon Iberico, often considered the gold standard of gourmet ham, is to ham what Kobe beef is to steak. The pigs from which Jamon Iberico is culled are a very exclusive breed, ergo the pampering they receive. The highest quality Jamon Iberico comes from pigs whose diet is limited to acorns once their slaughtering time approaches. Hams from the slaughtered pigs are cured for anywhere from twelve months to 48 months. The word “platter” may be a bit of a misnomer because the portion size you receive is only about two-ounces, but the memorable melt-in-your-mouth quality of the ham makes this a worthwhile indulgence.
It would be hard to consider the Spanish Charcuterie Plate a “consolation prize because it’s quite excellent, but oh that Jamon Iberico. If you can’t order the Jamon Iberico, the Charcuterie Plate is a very good alternative. Charcuterie is a French term which refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more. Cosmos Tapas’ charcuterie plate features spicy chorizo, Serrano ham, lomo embuchado, olives, pickled onions and baguettes.
The thinly cut Serrano ham is wonderfully marbled dry-cured ham with a salty flavor. It’s fairly standard in American tapas bars, but is always welcome for its fine flavor. The spicy chorizo, made from coarsely chopped pork and pork fat, is also a fairly common tapas menu offering. The chorizo is seasoned with smoked and piquant Spanish paprika and salt. The lomo embuchado, sometimes considered the “prince of dry cured sausages in Spain,” inherits the flavors of sea salt, smoked paprika and garlic from its 90-day curing process. One of the biggest surprises in the Charcuterie Plate actually has nothing to do with meats. It’s the pickled onions which are brined in a solution that includes jalapeños, imbuing them with a pleasantly piquant taste.
A couple of decades ago, Cecilia Kido owned and operated the long defunct Empanadas House which offered some thirty types of empanadas. Considered the national dish of Chile, empanadas are a natural fit for the Cosmo Tapas menu where at least three are available. If the baked beef empanada packed with beef, onions, hard-boiled eggs, raisins and olives is any indication, empanadas are an absolute must-have. The melange of flavors makes for a very exciting treat which challenges you to discern the individual components. The crust enveloping the ingredients is light and flaky, but formidable enough to keep them all in. This empanada is served with pebre, a Chilean “salsa” with a piquant, refreshing bite.
Melissa’s favorite tapa, one she described as a beautiful dish with vibrant flavors, is the “Choke,” grilled marinated artichoke with goat cheese and orange zest. The artichokes are splayed out in an almost floral arrangement with a dewy goat cheese sheen on each petal and the redolence of orange zest. The Choke is grilled to an absolute perfection and can be consumed in its entirety as you might a piece of nigiri sushi or by the petal if you’re able to show such restraint. In either case, this is a superb tapa, one of several offerings on the Vegetable Tapas section of the menu.
The most popular tapa on the menu is stuffed dates, a tiny plate brimming with six Medjool dates stuffed with feta cheese and wrapped in applewood smoked bacon. It’s akin to indulging in sweet, savory and smoky meat and cheese candy. Each bite rewards you with taste explosions that are best tempered with a palate cleanser (such as taking a bite from another tapa before resuming with the next stuffed date.
Another very popular tapa is the Lollipop Lamb chops, four succulent and meaty chops atop a bed of sauteed spinach with a garlic aioli and an olive-feta tapenade. At medium-rare, the lamb chops are tender and juicy, wholly capable of excelling on their own. The tapenade and aioli elevate the chops to a higher level, imparting complementary flavors which bring out the best qualities of the chops.
From the seafood tapas section of the menu, one sure to be a favorite is the Peruvian-style Ceviche, fresh barrimundi marinated in citrus juice with onion, cilantro and a housemade jalapeño vinaigrette. The ceviche is unlike the ceviche served in Mexican restaurants throughout New Mexico in that it does not contain a single chopped tomato. The jalapeño vinaigrette enlivens the barrimundi and complements the citrus with a pleasant piquancy. Served in a concave glass over ice, this ceviche is comparable to that served in great Peruvian restaurants.
Dessert tapas are a specialty of the house. Seven of them are available including churros, the threaded fried dough pastry sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut. The churros are stuffed with an assortment of sweet goodness: hazelnut chocolate, dulce de leche or berries. You can mix and match the four churros per order. The dulce de leche is especially good for my sweet tooth. You might appreciate another flavor even more.
In the Tasting NM section of its January, 2012 collectors’ edition celebrating New Mexico’s centennial, New Mexico Magazine showcased quince, a fruit high in pectin with a strong “perfume.” My friend, the scintillating author Cheryl Alters Jamison, provided a wonderful recipe for quince butter. Her recipe in mind inspired me to order a dessert tapa called Membrillo and Manchego Cheese, imported quince paste with fresh Manchego cheese. The Manchego proved a perfect foil for the ultra-sweet quince paste made even better with a leaf of basil.
The menu at Cosmo Tapas even includes an “Entrees” section listing six full-sized dinners, one of which is Spanish paella (made-to-order with chicken, tiger prawns, clams, mussels, scallops, calamari, crawfish, Spanish chorizo, vegetables and Valenciana saffron rice). It’s easy to imagine a tapa or two for an appetizer followed by paella or another of the entree items.
One of the reasons it took me so long to visit Cosmo Tapas is because every critic and publication in town reviewed it within weeks of its opening. Acclaim was pretty much universal. Now that Cosmo Tapas has been open for almost two and a half years, the time was right for me to visit and see for myself whether or not the acclaim was justified. If anything, some of the high praise may be understated. Tapas is at or near the top of Spanish restaurants I’ve visited. Best of all, each visit will be a new adventure thanks to the wide variety of tapas offered.
4200 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Spanish Charcuterie Plate, Baked Beef Empanada, Grilled Choke, Stuffed Dates, Lollipop Lamb Chops, Ceviche, Membrillo & Manchego Cheese, Churros