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Imagine Spain Has Paella but No Passion

Flash in the pan: Paella is a house specialty at Scottsdale's new Imagine Spain.
Jackie Mercandetti

The restaurant name is so evocative: Imagine Spain.

It has me thinking of a country that's sophisticated, exciting, and naturally beautiful, where the good life is all about sharing fantastic food with friends in a warm, inviting atmosphere. "Convivial" is the word one of my pals used to describe the ideal Spanish tapas place, which sounds really appealing to me. No, I haven't been to Spain — yet — but I've heard from many who have that Spaniards stay up late to eat, drink, and party, and that a visit to Spain is gratifying on many different levels. I think I'd love it there.

But Imagine Spain, tucked into the Scottsdale Promenade space that housed Radda Caffe Bar until this past spring, didn't even come close to conveying that magic. Some of my dining companions, who have traveled all over Spain, confessed they agreed with me when I asked them to be brutally honest. (I already knew the answer, though, from the looks on their faces.)

Unfortunately, since visiting this two-month-old Spanish eatery, I guess I'll have to keep imagining Spain.

On paper, I love the idea of it. First of all, it's independently owned by a couple of ladies who relocated to the Valley from Spain. Second, I think we could certainly stand to have more options in the way of Spanish cuisine, which is still surprisingly underrepresented in the restaurant scene. And besides that, the menu here has a decent variety of dishes, and the prices are reasonable.

But dare I say, Imagine Spain was downright gloomy.

I want a Spanish restaurant to seduce me into eating way too much delicious food. I want it to get me drunk on good sangria (when I'm not on the job, of course). I want a place where I can enjoy a fun dinner that fools me, even just for a second, into thinking that I can experience that leisurely Spanish lifestyle in my own backyard. It doesn't have to be fancy — in fact, simplicity is beautiful. But it has to have some personality.

This place, on the other hand, did not charm me in the least, although the sangria was great.

You know how some restaurants manage to completely defy their strip mall surroundings in the way of comfort and décor? As in, you'd actually want to hang out there? Imag

ine Spain was not one of those places.

Walking in the front door, I was immediately struck by the sterile vibe: wrinkled blue and white window drapes, dark wood chairs and blue tablecloths, and cold white walls that stretched up to a vast ceiling of fans and exposed ductwork, all stark white. Even some framed photos and wall lanterns were not enough make it cozy. The lighting was just awful — not sure if the chandeliers and tiny lights above the bar were CFLs, but they cast an unflattering, unnatural glow on the whole room. And the music cut in and out. When it stopped playing for extended periods of time, the space had a hollow echo.

The food was hit-and-miss, although Imagine Spain's signature dish, paella, was decent. It comes in six different versions and is priced per person, rather than per pan. That makes it a bit confusing as to how much to order, especially if you also want to try a bunch of the tapas. Even a two-order pan was a good deal of food for four people.

I really enjoyed the arroz negro, whose blackish rice was tinted with squid ink. The rice was tender but not too soft, mixed with bits of calamari and baby shrimp. There was a tasty crust along the bottom of the pan, and on top, there were four huge whole prawns and several mussels in the shell — all very fresh and nicely cooked.

Disappointment set in when I ordered the paella Alicantina, which was supposed to come with chicken, pork, garbanzo beans, nora peppers (a popular Spanish variety), and red peppers. What landed on the table ended up being the paella Valenciana — almost the same thing, but with butter beans and green beans instead of garbanzos and nora. Damn, I just love garbanzos.

Considering that we'd already waited for the paella — our waiter warned us it would take a good 30 minutes for it to be ready — we couldn't exactly ask the kitchen to swap it out for the one we wanted. So we ate it anyway, and were disappointed to find it filled with dry, inedible chunks of pork. Thankfully, the chicken was not overcooked.

Complimentary bread with a small dish of minced fresh tomato sauce and a bowl of garlicky, creamy allioli (i.e., aioli) was a nice touch, and it was handy to have around for nibbling after our tapas were brought out all at once (it would've been nice to have a more steady pace between those and the paella).

Among the tapas, the cold tortilla Española was particularly tasty, two fat wedges of a chunky potato and onion omelet. Although it needed salt, it went well with a cool dollop of allioli. Aceitunas, a small appetizer of olives, cornichons, and garlic, also complemented the tortilla.

Chorizo a la Sidra was a mouthwatering plate of spicy dry sausages, lightly charred. Imagine Spain's eponymous croquetas, golden fried chicken croquettes, had great textures: crispy outside, moist and fluffy inside. And torrat was a scrumptious jumble of tuna, tangy roasted red and green peppers, and eggplant.

But there was no denying that the jamón serrano was lackluster. I love the salty, thinly sliced cured ham, but I wasn't inclined to have seconds when I realized it was dry and a little tough. Ensalada Española sounded nice: romaine, boiled egg, onion, white asparagus, tomato, and corn. In reality, it was all about romaine in a bland red wine vinaigrette, with hardly enough toppings to give it interest. Champinones al Jerez, a bowl of stewed mushrooms, tasted harshly of sherry, and a plate of mixed grilled veggies (red peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and onion), seasoned with paprika and olive oil, was merely boring.

At the end of the meal, I skipped seasonal fruits in favor of chocolate mousse. What a mistake! Even the pretty garnish — whipped cream, a sliced strawberry, and a big butter cookie — couldn't make up for the so-called mousse, an overbearingly sugary mess that was heavy and waxy, nothing even close to the ethereal confection I'd craved. Crumbly almond cake, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and velvety cheese flan were much, much better options.

Imagine Spain does have potential — if the proprietors can make it a place to linger, fine-tune the food, and seriously amp up the service. Sorry, but when your customers have to flag you down for everything, from the first glass of water to the change for your bill, it takes more than a smile to make it okay. And by then, they've probably already decided they're not coming back.


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