Country bread pairs well with small plates, from top to bottom: sautéed mushrooms, roasted cauliflower, and fries with scrambled eggs, sausage and a sunny-side-up egg. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: Don’t show up at TapaBar, the Woodmont Triangle restaurant that chef Alonso Roche and his brother, Alvaro Roche, opened in September, at 7:30 on a Friday night without a reservation. The place is packed—the 45 seats in its dining room are spoken for and the vibrant bar is teeming with a smartly dressed, lively crowd reminiscent of a European café.
Nabbing two of the 18 spots at the long, white Carrara marble bar, my husband and I settle in over a Vespers martini (equal parts Beefeater gin, Tito’s vodka and Lillet Blanc) and the El Chamberi, one of TapaBar’s four gin and house-made tonic cocktails, served in a 16-ounce balloon wineglass and garnished with a charred lemon wheel. The house-made tonic’s flavor base—grapefruit, lemon, orange, lime, cinchona bark, allspice and cardamom—lend complexity, perfuming the cocktail without overwhelming it.
TapaBar’s El Chamberi is crafted with house-made tonic. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Perusing the space, which wraps the corner of Norfolk and Fairmont avenues with floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s evident that the Roche brothers didn’t skimp on the design, a mix of contemporary, Spanish and shabby chic references. Yes, there are some predictable elements—bare Edison bulbs, exposed ductwork, striped dish towel napkins—but other details signal chicness: a floral-patterned, traditional Spanish concrete tile floor; butcher block tabletops in multicolored wood stripes; and midcentury modern chairs. Woven bulls’ heads in red, beige and white made by a Spanish artist adorn one wall. Another is completely filled with rows of decorative houseplants in sconce-like vases with an irrigation system built in. “We just want to give a little bit of life to the room,” Alonso Roche says.
The chef, who lives in Chevy Chase, was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and moved to the Washington, D.C., area from Miami in 2000. Eschewing a career as a television producer, he graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg in 2003, then worked with chefs Damian Salvatore at Persimmon Restaurant in Bethesda, Tracy O’Grady at Willow in Arlington and Fernando Arellano in Madrid.
In 2011, the Roche brothers opened Bold Bite, a fast-casual lunchtime eatery serving burgers, sandwiches and salads, next door to what was then BlackFinn American Saloon. Last year, they annexed half of the BlackFinn space to create TapaBar.
TapaBar’s menu includes a cheese and charcuterie section; salads; and hearty, risotto-like rice dishes ample for sharing. But tapas, those small plates of appetizer-portioned food, are the main attraction.
Many of Alonso Roche’s tapas speak to abundant talent. In the seafood category, neat rectangular slices of rosy ahi tuna slices a la Grenada thrive under a drizzle of sweet and tart pomegranate and verjus (unripe grape juice) reduction sprinkled with tiny, vacuum-pressured (and therefore compressed) cubes of apple. An octopus tentacle braised to tenderness in red wine, then smoked and adorned with mild red piquillo purée is a superlative treatment of that now-ubiquitous cephalopod. A hefty portion of tender steamed mussels in broth flavored with cubes of garlicky chorizo sausage and thin strips of lemon zest inspire me to ask for more bread for sopping and a spoon for slurping.
Pomegranate and apple flavors enhance ahi tuna. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Top right: The giant Mexican prawns are one of our critic’s favorite TapaBar eats.
Tasty grilled chistorras—smoky cured pork sausage links spiked with garlic and paprika—head up the meat tapas. Mint and preserved lemon enhance delicate albondigas (meatballs) of lamb, pork and pine nuts nestled on salsa brava, a puréed red pepper sauce. Ultra-tender slices of grilled sirloin served with a salsa verde of garlic, parsley, basil and olive oil are a solid example of less-is-more success. A bowl full of crispy french fries interspersed with chorizo sausage and scrambled eggs and topped with a sunny-side-up egg (huevos rotos con chistorra) is thoroughly habit-forming and would be an A-1 hangover food—the Spanish answer to poutine, the Canadian dish of french fries, cheese curds and gravy.
Among the vegetarian tapas, bypass stodgy mushroom croquetas and opt for setas a la plancha—shiitake, beech and smoked cremini mushrooms sautéed with olive oil, garlic slivers, shallots, Madeira and sherry and thickened with butter, a nod to Roche’s French training at L’Academie de Cuisine. Another winner: large florets of cauliflower lightly blanched, then roasted in butter and served with an aerated sauce of puréed potato, garlic and piquillo pepper.
The giant Mexican prawns are one of our critic’s favorite TapaBar eats. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
If they have the “chef’s whim” daily special of giant Mexican prawns sautéed with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and parsley and placed atop a pork jus and squid ink reduction—order it and wipe the plate clean with country bread. A risotto-like rice dish, which is yellow from saffron and specked with red pepper, is abundant and rife with seafood, but the rice comes overcooked. (TapaBar doesn’t offer paella, due to lack of space and equipment to do it properly, the chef says.)
A pet peeve I have at small plates restaurants is that they bring the food as it’s made. TapaBar is no exception. So to keep everything from arriving all at once, save the unwieldy 17-by-11-inch menu on your table and order course by course.
Dessert—including an ice cream sundae with donuts that are stale and too sweet; pasty, undercooked churros; and olive oil cake oddly flavored with fresh thyme—is a significant but easily overlooked flaw at TapaBar. You’re better off referring to the menu and ordering one more tapa—or two—to fill you up.
4901-A Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, 240-483-4004, www.tapabarbethesda.com
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.