If I were not duty-bound to visit a restaurant more than once before reviewing it, I never would have returned to Scottsdale's Tapas after my initial, disastrous visit. There were even a couple of points during the evening when my companion and I seriously discussed walking out. Mostly, this occurred after we were seated and then ignored by our server for 20 minutes or more. The only reason I endured this and several subsequent humiliations was the knowledge that all of these screw-ups would make fine fodder for an upcoming column.
As the name suggests, the six-week-old Tapas aspires to be a Spanish restaurant; its red and yellow walls are hung with posters of bullfighters and flamenco dancers. This and the guitar music that's emanating from the stereo might make for romantic surroundings were it not for the ungainly steel ventilation tubes that snake throughout the eatery. This exposed ventilation seems to be an intentional design element, a cliché of pseudo-urban chic. But perhaps the owners had to make do with it from the previous tenant. In any case, it clashes garishly with the old-world charm Tapas otherwise attempts to evoke.
Nor does all this piping help the air much, as it was muggy during all of my meals there. I would suggest someone take a look at Tapas' A/C or at least crank it up a notch. In this heat, ceiling fans going full blast do little other than move around warm air. Could poor air circulation and the laxness induced by an Arizona summer explain the laziness of the wait staff on that first evening? At one point, I asked my waitress for more ice for my sangria, and she replied in the affirmative as if more ice were on its way. Then she busied herself by chatting with her fellow staff members at the bar, one of whom acted like a supervisor of some kind. Eventually, I was forced to obtain the ice myself from the bartender.
7228 East First Avenue, Scottsdale
Shrimp in raincoats: $8.75
Pinchos skewers: $8.15
Lamb empanada: $14.45
Seafood paella (for two): $43.90
480-970-9002, web link
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Same thing happened with the check, in that it took the woman so long to come back for the credit card that I approached her myself with it. The temptation is to chalk this up to one incompetent employee, but I blame the management. We came late, and by the time we were ready to leave, staffers easily outnumbered customers in the place. Unfortunately, most of said staffers spent their time back toward the kitchen with their hands in their pants. True, Tapas is a new venture, and there are the proverbial kinks to work out, but this Scottsdale locale on First Avenue has a sister restaurant in Newport Beach, California, so you'd think the proprietors would have their ducks in a row from jump. Think again.
Instructively, the best service I received at Tapas came when I was almost alone in the joint. Then the wait staff did its job without asking, and I was able to concentrate on the victuals, which is not necessarily a good thing. In assessing Tapas' offerings, I'm reminded of that quote from Revelations: "Because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit thee out of my mouth." Despite my own agnosticism, I must admit St. John the Divine had a point, and one that, thanks to years of Methodist Sunday school as a kid, I can at last make use of in a restaurant review. That is, the middle of the road is not enough to earn you kudos. And middle of the road is what Tapas is all about. The result is ho-hum dining.
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In Spain, tapas are sort of the ultimate in bar snacks, a way of getting patrons to stick around for one more drink. "Tapa" means "lid" or "covering" in Spanish, and some authorities suggest this is a reference to an ancient tavern practice of placing a meat snack over your glass of wine to keep the flies out. Whatever the truth, few of Tapas' tapas encouraged me to linger. I appreciated the lemony ceviche of scallops and snapper, and the fried calamari once more proved an appetizer that's nearly impossible to ruin. But the only time I saw a real glimmer of originality from the kitchen was with the "shrimp in raincoats," four lightly fried shrimp in a thick pear sauce. More than four shrimp would have been welcome, but at least this small plate was above average taste-wise.
The "pinchos skewers" of grilled chicken breast and cocktail sausages called cantimpalitos were cold, chewy and a little too difficult to remove from their long wooden toothpicks. You could argue that cantimpalitos can be served cold like this, but I doubt the kitchen intended the chicken for the same fate. Instead, I surmise the plate had been waiting too long for pickup. The albóndigas, or Spanish meatballs, were another letdown. The little meatballs themselves were not as juicy and flavorful as they should have been, and the red sauce they were bathed in was a tad too reminiscent of Chef Boyardee.
Entrees seemed stuck in neutral as well. First time out, my dining buddy and I each had an empanada plate, chicken and lamb, respectively. In both cases, the innards of these triangular pastries were dry and unappealing. You could do better warming up a Hot Pocket at home, as far as savoriness goes. I rather liked the fried mashed potato ball called a bomba, but the saut&eacuate;ed veggies were too obviously an afterthought to enjoy. We returned on another night for the paella, which also failed to wow me. To be honest, I've had worse paella. At least the rice, yellow from saffron, was not mushy, as some places serve it. But otherwise this mix of tomatoes, shrimp, scallops, peas, clams and mussels tasted strangely bland. The fact that there was a clam and a mussel or two that were shut tight and dead didn't aid the overall impression.
The flan de naranja did nothing for me, as the flan itself, served in a little bowl, had no firmness, and crumbled as soon as my spoon touched it. Better were the crunchy, cinnamon-encrusted churros and chocolate dip, but they weren't enough to save Tapas from itself. In six months, maybe Tapas will be worth a recommendation, but it's not there now.