02/17/2006 — Small plates are in vogue right now.
In big cities across America, it's not uncommon to find menus where the appetizer selection is larger than the entrÃ©e choices.
The Spaniards have done this for centuries; it's called tapas.
Tapas Estrella, a new Spanish-inspired restaurant that opened downtown in late November, is all about small plates.
This stylish tapas bar would fit comfortably in Barcelona or Madrid or San Francisco.
Tapas Estrella is the sister restaurant to The Milky Way, owned and operated by chefs Mitch and Andrea Maricich.
The contemporary design boasts streaks of natural browns and oranges. The smell of fresh leather still floats in the air from the new high-backed chairs, reminiscent of wafting saffron. It's a hip place without being over the top.
Servers are casual, too, with well-worn jeans and T-shirts.
One evening, we settled into a comfy booth on a large banquette.
Right off, we ordered glasses of Mont-Marcal ($5), a Cava-style Spanish sparkling wine, and six medium-sized Dabob Bay oysters ($9) from the chilly waters of northern Puget Sound.
The freshly shucked bivalves tasted slightly sweet and metallic, served in the half shell with champagne mignonette and lemony cocktail sauce.
All diners are given dense bread (flecked with roasted garlic) and a shallow dish of Spanish olive oil.
The ordering system can be somewhat confusing. Diners receive two menus: a regular menu with descriptions and no prices; and a long checklist with prices and options for two sizes (small and large). You also get tiny pencils for keeping track of your eats. Don't worry, though, the servers keep tabs, as well.
We next ordered salt cod croquettes ($7/large) and six large Mediterranean mussels ($8/small) lightly cooked with white wine, tomato, saffron threads, garlic and toothsome pieces of chorizo.
Too bad there was no more gratis bread for sopping up the deliciously smoky broth. We just drank it straight from the bowl when the mussels were gone.
The deep-fried croquettes (six of them) were that perfect textural contrast of crunchy and soft, packed with citrus-spiked cod and scallion.
Cups of gazpacho ($4) made for a refreshing intermezzo, after our seafood start.
This chilled tomato soup was garlicky and pocked with chopped green pepper, cucumber and onion, finished with a zigzag of grilled scallion crème fraiche.
Next up, a cheese trio ($7/small) and some briny green and black olives ($5/small) tossed in olive oil, vinegar and herbs.
The Spanish cheese selection (on this night) was crumbled blue-veined cheese, mellow manchego and nutty-tasting Idiazabal served with sliced baguette.
This left us wanting something more substantial, like a plate of meatballs ($8/large). The albondingas (six ground chicken, beef and pork meatballs) were aromatic and dense, placed in a bath of bright romesco sauce — made from roasted red pepper, ground almonds, garlic and olive oil.
A glass of oaky Cosme Palacio Rioja ($5) played well with the meatballs.
We finished the night with frothy, lemon-kicked rice pudding ($6) dusted with cinnamon.
The tapas menu isn't offered during the day, when the restaurant turns out limited lunch offerings such as salads, sandwiches and light entrees. Who has time for tapas at lunch, anyway?
The grilled chicken and pork sausage special ($8) was nothing to write home to Spain about, yet the plate came full circle with sliced baguette, stone-ground mustard and mixed greens splashed with sherry vinaigrette.
We truly enjoyed the spinach and manchego cheese empanadas ($7) — flaky little pies served with delicious sweet pepper relish and sour cream. Also good were the chicken empanadas ($7) packed with piquant pollo and chopped onion.
All in all, Tapas Estrella does more right than it does wrong.
That is a great sign for a new restaurant.
James Patrick Kelly is The Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at email@example.com.