Seventeen-year-old Carlos Hernandez had big dreams when he emigrated from Guatemala to the United States in1987. He wanted to cook big-time. As he worked his way through the ranks of kitchen helpers, he observed, learned, tasted and finally created dishes on his own. Enterpeunrial at heart, he ran two beach concessions before he took over the toques at what is now Tinto Bar & Tapas in Norwalk and Solun Tapas Bar in Woodbridge. We popped into Tinto one night to see how he was doing.
Tinto was once Meigas and before that it was Meson Galicia, the flagship of Ignacio Blanco’s Spanish restaurants that he launched in an old trolley museum. Blanco introduced Nutmeg diners to the delights of Spanish cuisine at a time when they had little experience of the dishes of the Iberian peninsula. After the first few years, running the place became a roller-coaster ride, good years and not so good years. Perhaps it was the location on Wall Street in Norwalk, where there is little pedestrian traffic — or for the matter, little road traffic — that adversely impacted the place. What you don’t see often means you don’t know.
Maybe the space was too big or the bar too small. Maybe it was the ephemeral foam concoctions Blanco borrowed from El Bulli in Spain that tasted more of air than of food that turned people off. In the end, Blanco decided to sell — to his enterprising man in the kitchen, Hernandez.
Hernandez took to his task with relish. He demolished the small bar near the entrance to the restaurant from the downstairs lobby and built a larger, contemporary one on the opposite side with 35 seats. He added 20 more seats for dining, for a 160-cover house, and made the space divisible for smaller parties. He removed the curtains so that more light entered the restaurant (and passersby could peer inside). Some art and pottery, the terra cotta floor and linen-napped tables remain. The brick walls are now an intense red; in fact, the place pops with intense colors. And then he took to the menu, recasting classics, and following the current trend, he fashioned a menu that features a slew of small plates.
Tapas are great for socializing and if you’re not particularly hungry. You could sample a clutch with a fine glass of crisp Verdejo white wine or a plush Descendients De J. Palacios Petalos and feel happy. When we visit our daughter in Seville, we sometimes go tapas bar hopping at night. We are not big eaters but two or three tapas often leave us scrounging later that night in the refrigerator for the makings of a more satisfying meal, even a light sandwich. Ordering tapas at dinner in mid-day is a bigger affair when tapas are more substantial.
At Tinto, tapas usually come three to an order, so they are easy to share (if you’re willing to sacrifice your foie gras), and many are generous in portion. Presentation is lovely. Flavor is another thing.
A cold grilled shrimp comes sitting on top of a orange round on top of a mound of mashed avocado which crowns a thin-slice of roasted red beet. There’s lots of fruit overtones in the dish, with orange, mango and kiwi playing against one another, and there’s lots of mango, pineapple and figs in the tender pork belly served with a whisper of a port reduction sauce. The sweetness of all these tropical notes are a bit cloying, overtaking the taste of the central theme. The pork belly is deliciously fatty that it can stand its own ground, not so the shrimp which got tangled up in a sort of Hawaiian ecstasy. Another pork belly tapa was speared with a cube of bland butternut squash.
A sphere of duck breast, cooked to just the right note of medium-rare, is fine on its own. Unfortunately, we also had a wild mushroom risotto (harking to Italian cuisine) that was served at the same time and it detracted greatly from the duck. Tropical notes of orange and apricot touched with a flowery moscatel are a distraction in the duck dish. Another Portuguese fortified wine, port, sweetens a rib of baby rack of lamb that has a well-seasoned crust and perfectly cooked rare meat. A more judicious use of sweet sauces and diced fruit would greatly improve these dishes.
A good-size marinated artichoke, served tail up, appears with a tiny stuffing of seafood (lobster on the menu, shrimp in reality) in its center. Everything about this tapa (ours came without the corn listed on the menu) was really good. The stem is surprisingly tender. We were so pleased with this dish until we learned that the kitchen didn’t pickle the artichokes — they’re imported that way from Italy! A tapa that does hit the mark and is made fresh in house takes bluefin tuna and combines it with chopped tomatoes, black olives, sesame oil, kiwi and a hint of mint. It’s nestled in a wonton crisp and it’s delicious.
The celebrated chef Luis Bollo, imported from Spain, helmed Meigas’s kitchen for a short time and surely cast a savory spell on the place (he now runs a successful restaurant in New York), so why on a recent Thursday night were there so few people at Tinto? Service is friendly and knowledgeable, table bread and olive oil dipping sauce are fine, the ambience is pleasant enough although a tad too bright for evening dining and there seems a fair amount of attention to detail. Perhaps location is the problem. Tinto is definitely a destination restaurant, so it has to be top-notch to attract a faithful clientele.
Can it be the food? Yes and no. A tapa’s credentials depend on the best quality ingredients, prepared simply and, key, are freshly made. Certainly there are culinary attractions at Tinto, like the rich pink-center, coin-size foie gras served over caramelized Vidalia onions, and there are empanadas with a crunchy exterior and a filling of chicken, spinach, guacamole and roasted garlic. The indistinctive salmon cake, on the other hand, was dull, as if it had been frozen and then reheated — its old tartar sauce detracted from the dish even further. The chickpeas and spinach tapa, a favorite in the bars of Seville and very simply prepared there, is here made with a too-sweet tomato sauce. Saffron, listed on the menu for this dish, is elusive. Desserts can be skipped (haven’t I had my fill of fruit for the evening?). However, we did sample some familiar sweets like flan and dulce de leche cake and a red-wine poached pear all of which were merely elemental.
There are intriguing Spanish wines on the menu, and the bar offers familiar cocktails: mojitos, margaritas, martinis, caipirinhas, and sangria, of course.
Tinto Bar and Tapas could use some fine tuning. Fewer tapas would mean less necessity to freeze batches beforehand. There are some 38 tapas on the menu from cold and hot, to vegetarian and salads. Three tapas could easily cost $20 or more, about the price for a full-blown main course, of which there are nine to ten selections ( suckling pig, hanger steak, sea bass, for example).
Hernandez is ambitious and anxious to please, and we want him to succeed. Now that he has the space spiffed up, and a strong inclination for the direction of the restaurant, he can spend time perfecting the food that comes out of his kitchen. A trained disciple of Bolla’s would help. Then it will be a destination worth the trip from anywhere.
Tinto Bar & Tapas
Lunch and Dinner, Tues. thru Sun.
10 Wall Street
Norwalk, CT 06850
tintobartapas.com (still under construction)