On Tapas the World

Call it a Spanish invasion. At the same time Bistro Madrid (see review in this issue) opened in Ahwatukee this spring, Ibiza Café threw open its doors within rock-tossing distance of the canal at Scottsdale and Camelback. Named after an island off Spain's coast, the restaurant isn't all authentic Spanish -- its offerings hopscotch across the continent with dishes from France, Italy, even Morocco and Tunisia. But in a town strapped for European exotica, I'll take any type of tapas I can get.

Better yet: While tiny tapas plates can be expensive ($8 to $10 for an appetizer plate is pretty common), Ibiza offers irresistible temptation, with $5 plates and 2-for-1 sangrias at happy hour (4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday). A handsome, sleek setting with local art for sale and a dynamite mix of contemporary music makes the event all the more electric.

Sometimes my brain short-circuits (even before sangria). With so much food knowledge swirling in such a tiny space, I forget that, in Spain, "tortilla" means omelet. So I have to scramble to look cool in front of my happy-hour pal when our plate arrives layered with soft potato slices, onion, egg gratin, manchego cheese, salty prosciutto, tomato and olives, instead of a cheese crisp-type thing. Terrific stuff cut in four plump slices, sort of like frittatas in costume jewelry.

There's no confusion over calamari and shrimp, though: pristine critters grilled and tossed in a creamy cloak of garlic, tomato, herbs and lemon over greens with a side of grilled toast. And this is a real meal: A tasting of Mediterranean canapés brings a dozen petite crisp breads individually topped with olive tapenade, sun-dried tomato goat cheese, eggplant caponata and roasted garlic-lentil spread.

This next one isn't technically a tapa, but get it, get it, get it. Lunch, happy hour, dinner . . . just get it. It's roasted red bell pepper soup, a tart-tangy taste of sweet earth liquid served steaming hot and swirled with a pretty flower design in corn purée. I find myself drawn in for lunch days in a row, spooning the jewel with the field green salad that's included with a lunch order. Peppery lettuces are spiked with tomato and red onion, dressed in vibrant vinaigrette and, when I plead with my server, she brings soft bread so I can sop up the last drops of soup and dressing. One gluttonous time, I add an order of Tunisian boreks, an arresting presentation of lacy, flaky phyllo cigars stuffed with minced chicken and lots of gutsy rosemary, and dunked in a full-bodied lemon aioli capped with whole capers.

Just try to tapas that.


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