Ibiza Tapas, Hamden

 

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But before we order heartier fare, I take a trip down memory lane with a glass of albarino (Black Pig) and a dish of almonds. Not just any almonds, but Marcona almonds, as proprietarily Spanish as Russian caviar and French Champagne.

I became addicted to these sweet, crunchy, vaguely heart-shaped almonds years ago at Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe’s legendary Club Marbella. At the time, I understood a little Spanish, though not enough to speak it, but when the dish of almonds that usually came with our afternoon pitcher of sangria failed to appear, my first Spanish word popped out of my mouth. “Alemendras?” I did not know then that my craving was for Marconas, “the queen of almonds” prized by chefs the world over for their gentle crispness, buttery texture and rich, sweet flavor.

In America, Marconas are often roasted in oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Ibiza Tapas serves them au naturel so they’re crunchier, cleaner-tasting—and irresistible.

We start with a plate of grilled leeks. Four stalks of palest green, shading to ivory, criss-crossed with grill marks, not only beguile the eye but turn out to be tender enough to cut with a fork and sugar-sweet. How do they get a tough-leafed leek to be so seductive? I inquire and learn that the trick is to poach the leeks in olive oil before grilling them. And the “barbecue aioli” garnish? It’s a secret. 

Tapas are attractive here, but there’s nothing extraneous on the plate. An artichoke-and-beet salad looks like a giant dahlia, every part of which is edible. Smoked trout is more straightforward. Underlaid with beet purée and served on olive toast, the smoky fish has been caramelized to balance the salt. It’s still a bit too salty for my taste but my companions say it’s just fine. Bluefin tuna, on the other hand, is a triumph, with foie gras mousse and caramelized mango in a Pedro Ximendez sherry reduction. Yum! 

Ignacio Blanco has endless fun with sea bass, which is not listed on the regular menu but is almost always among the “Fresh fish of the day” specials. One evening it’s paired with diced potatoes, mushrooms and chives and  sprinkled with pine nuts. Another time it’s salt-baked and embellished with carrot confit, smoked paprika oil, raisins, scallions and pimentos. However it’s prepared, sea bass at Ibiza Tapas is a not-to-be-missed surprise package of a dish.

Slightly more exotic sea creatures are also on offer—cuttlefish, for example, tiny ones braised and served with small, globe-shaped Catalan pasta in a saffron wine broth, which to our surprise packs a peppery kick. Fire eaters, this one’s for you.

We like the mild, soft sausage from Mallorca and the oxtail tossed with rice and chickpeas, but the pork belly is a work of art. Talk about sumptuous richness. Streaked with fat and lean, the fork-tender cured meat holds its shape on the plate and astonishes in the mouth by completely melting away. No stringiness, nothing to chew, just satiny smoothness and ultrarich flavor. How is it done? We pry the secret from Ignacio, who says he cooks it at a very low temperature  for a long time. How long? “Ten hours.” Take that, home cooks!

Desserts at Ibiza Tapas are lovely, both traditional and contemporary, often in combination: creamy rice pudding and chocolate mousse in an oversized martini glass, topped with passion-fruit foam; a grappa-and-coffee tart with vanilla ice cream; and my favorite, almond-crusted chocolate croquettes with lemon gelatin and coconut foam.

We find that we have been to every corner of Spain in a single evening. The food is unequivocally four-star. But the premises, smart, stylish, noisy and fun, are unapologetically wine bar. Seekers of four-star restaurant accoutrements may expect more, so I’ll subtract half a star. But the truth is, it’s hard to find better food anywhere. 

Ibiza Tapas
1832 Dixwell Ave., Hamden (203/909-6512; ibizatapaswinebar.com)

Open daily Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: tapas $4 to $9.75, desserts $6.

Ibiza Tapas, Hamden

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