Cafe Reviews

Chef Aaron May's Iruna Fills a Tapas Void

"Tapas" has lost its meaning in recent years, as the "small plates" trend has taken over restaurants that often have no connection to Spanish cuisine. There's nothing wrong with that, except that "small plates" have also become synonymous with plain ol' appetizers — and there's hardly anywhere in the Valley to find actual tapas (especially in light of Lola Tapas' recent demise).

For that reason alone, I was highly interested in checking out Iruña, a new Basque-meets-Spanish-style tapas lounge from chef Aaron May and his business partner Quinn Goldsberry. (Iruña is the Basque word for the city of Pamplona.)

Would these guys open a hangout where I could linger over cheese and olives and rustic savory bites, swirling a glass of Tempranillo and forgetting about the world? Indeed, after visiting a few times since Iruña opened in late spring, I think they're on to something. But I expect more, and I hope they can deliver.

May and Goldsberry took over the former Old Town home of Pischke's, which was unoccupied for nearly two years. They sandblasted and stripped down the space, discovered a 50-year-old mural, tiled the floors, and gave it a much-needed makeover. Now, it's a cool oasis of neutral colors and soft lighting, with an appealing bar, a wall of booths, and a long communal table where a young, good-looking crowd comes to nosh on casual Spanish dishes and drink sangria.

There's another reason I was curious about Iruña: Chef Aaron May is at a turning point, in my opinion. There's no question the man is one of Phoenix's better-known culinary personalities, thanks to his appearances at myriad culinary events and anything involving the term "celebrity chef." But what does that mean, and what will be his legacy?

He continues to get his name out there with his growing list of restaurants: Over Easy, a breakfast joint with two locations; 18 Degrees, a neighborhood grill at the Ice Den in North Scottsdale; The Lodge, a kitschy bar in Old Town Scottsdale; and Mabel's on Main, a retro-inspired lounge, also in Old Town. At Downtown Phoenix's new CityScape, he has even more concepts in the works, including an Asian noodle shop and a taquería called Vitamin T.

Feel like digging into some casual comfort food, or maybe just getting wasted? May has something for you. He's the Sam Fox of beer, burgers, and breakfast.

But things weren't always this way. Not long ago, May's name was associated with upscale restaurants that excited the culinary cognoscenti. A year ago, he closed his short-lived DC Ranch Italian eatery, Autostrada, soon followed by neighboring Sol y Sombra, the upscale tapas restaurant that established May as a player to begin with.

When it opened in 2006, Sol y Sombra was the hot ticket, with gorgeous staff and clientele, sleek, luxurious décor, charismatic wine director Dave Johnson schmoozing the front of the house, and May in the kitchen crafting beautiful plates of Spanish cuisine.

Although it didn't have the intimate, convivial atmosphere that comes to mind with the tapas restaurants of Spain, it was undeniably stylish, even sexy. I had many delicious meals at Sol y Sombra before it started to lose its luster and settle into more of a drinking destination.

In creating Iruña, May told me he'd hoped to do something more casual than that, and that he was excited to cook that kind of food again. But while Sol y Sombra was electric, Iruña has a gentle glow at best. I see a lot of potential here — the staff is both amiable and professional, and the atmosphere is comfortable. What I really want, though, is to be dazzled by the food.

Most of it was very good, while some of it was just disappointing. Consistency is what they need to work out here.

Let's start with the highlights, like succulent, perfectly seasoned filet mignon grilled with sherry and onions. The meat was outstanding, and salbitxada sauce — a chunky, garlicky concoction with tomatoes and chopped Marcona almonds, similar to romesco — made it unique. On top were some tender grilled green onions for an aromatic boost. This dish pushed all my carnivorous buttons.

Lamb with mustard and mint was another winner — three juicy, tender chops. Along with it, lima bean salad dressed in mustard vinaigrette needed a bigger dose of mustard, but fresh mint was a nice foil for the charred meat.

Pollo colonial was described as crispy chicken with sweet and spicy glaze, and it's a shame how little that indicates what a scrumptious dish this is. Yes, the hunks of fried chicken had a delicate crispiness, but the moist, flavorful meat was what really defined the dish, with the sweet heat of the glaze and tanginess of pink pickled shallots giving it the right amount of acid.

Simple, wine-friendly bites like the tortilla española (a thick potato omelet), pan con tomate (soft grilled bread rubbed with tomato and sprinkled with sea salt), gazpacho, crispy fried spinach and goat cheese croquetas, and spinach with chickpeas made welcome accompaniments to the more elaborate hot dishes.

However, a salad of apple, fennel, and grapefruit should have been ethereal. Instead, it was soggy with sherry vinaigrette, lacking balance. Marinated baby octopus was another good idea that didn't live up to expectation. Think "chewy." Thankfully, a similarly tangy seafood salad — chunks of crab with cucumber, red pepper, tomatoes, and pickled cauliflower — was perfect on a sticky summer night.

Chicken meatballs with truffle jus simply did not taste like truffle, while lomo con Romesco — marinated pork loin with Romesco sauce (smooth, with garlic and red pepper) — was both overdone and lukewarm. As a kicker, sautéed lobster with white corn and serrano ham was actually bland, and not tender. As the most expensive thing on the menu, this should've been stunning.

A couple desserts did put a smile on my face, though: silky "Sol y Sombra," a dome of chocolate pudding cake capped with crema catalana, made its French cousin, crème brûlée, seem staid, while a frozen Marcona almond nougat soufflé with salted Marcona almond crunch had a craveable combination of creamy, crunchy, and chewy.

Will Iruña be the restaurant that puts Aaron May back on the foodie radar, or will it just become another Old Town watering hole? That's up to him to decide.