Monday, July 23, 2007

47 restaurants in 47 days: #9, iTapas

iTapas Wine Bar
445 Emerson St., Palo Alto

Perhaps my server was trying to warn me when he took my order for four “small plates,” then paused and said, charmingly, “All for you?” (Note to waiters everywhere: A comment like this does not endear you to a female patron dining solo.)

I had a good meal at iTapas, but nothing was quite what I expected. That’s not necessarily bad, just a little disorienting.

The menu is an eccentric mix of traditional Spanish tapas, like garlic shrimp and tortilla de patatas, alongside Asian-influenced plates such as duck wontons and ahi tartare with ponzu sauce. Executive chef and owner John Hung Le also owns the Three Seasons Vietnamese restaurants in Palo Alto and San Francisco.

Don’t believe the menu when it says that plates are small. In my experience, portions at tapas restaurants are saucer-sized, enough for two people each to have a few bites before moving on to the next nibble. At iTapas, however, the salad is more than a side, the vegetable plate would serve two, and everything else I saw was sized for generous sharing.

Mango, raisins, leaf lettuces, grape tomatoes, and fennel. These are what made up my salad in addition to the “frisee, tangerines, feta, glazed walnuts and sherry vinegar” promised in the menu. And they were mandarin orange segments -- all four of them -- not tangerines. And the walnuts may have been toasted, but they were not sweet. It was a fresh and interesting salad, and I can understand a few substitutions on a Sunday night. But one shouldn’t wonder if one’s plate was meant for another diner.

The lobster roll was recommended by another reviewer, and I was glad for the advice. It was a tasty take on the spring roll, substituting tender lobster chunks for the shrimp and adding a bit of avocado to the mix of rice noodles and basil leaves stuffed inside a soft rice-paper wrapper. I approved of the wasabi mayonnaise on the side; it had bite, but it didn’t assault you.

I was curious about “Brussels sprouts sautéed with butter and wine sauce,” and while I ate quite a few, I probably wouldn’t order them again. I didn’t think it was possible to make the lowly sprout into such a rich dish. They were well-cooked and tender, the largest sprouts halved.

I confess, I was thinking of sushi when I ordered hamachi koma, grilled yellowtail cheek. Perhaps that’s why I was startled when I received a portion of crispy fish as big as my hand. Who knew yellowtail were so…cheeky? The crackling skin was a good contrast to the flesh, which melted like butter.

I had second thoughts after ordering a flight of white wine. I hadn’t noticed that the theme of this particular flight was “Blenders.” What did that mean, daiquiris?

Then I read the descriptions a little more closely. What the heck is a 2004 Reserve Perrin Grenache Blanc / Bourboulerc / Marsanne / Roussanne / Viognier Cotes du Rhone Blanc? A French mongrel, n’est-ce pas?

I wasn’t fond of the Perrin – not much depth, for all its components -- but I liked the other two, despite the mash-up. (2005 Brassfield “Serenity” Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Grigio/Gewurtztraminer, Clear Lake; and 2004 Shoo Fly “Buzzcut” Verdehlo/Viognier/Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling, Australia)

Itapas in Palo Alto

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