[Sidebar] July 24 - 31, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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Spanish Tavern

A stunning setting for
choice Iberian cooking

by Bill Rodriguez

1 Beach Street, Narragansett
Open Sun.-Thurs., noon-10 p.m.
Fri. & Sat., 12-11 p.m.
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible

Sangria hunting seemed a sensible pursuit when a hot summer afternoon drew us to the Narragansett beach breeze. Fortunately, the search took no longer than it did when the Spain restaurant was in the Village Inn.

When Spain had moved out a couple of years ago, two employees had opened the Spanish Tavern in its place. On our recent visit to the latter, we were pleased to find that more than the tradition of fruit juice in wine coolers had continued.

The view alone would make the Spanish Tavern popular, even if it were a Taco Belle. From the parasolled deck, we watched kayakers compete with boogie-boarders along the curl of Narragansett surf. Past them, Jamestown merged with Newport across the water, and Brenton Point was post card pretty at their point.

Dinners, we learned, aren't served on the plastic-chair patio during madhouse Friday and Saturday nights. Still, being seated inside has its own appeal. With its less informal ambiance, the bentwood and burgundy decor and the panorama through a semi-circle of windows actually complements the food better.

For an appetizer, we were looking forward to a mess of steamed mejillones ($6.95), and we were served fresh Italian bread to mop up their winy broth, which we chose over green sauce. The more than two dozen mussels weren't very fat, but they were fresh, and the savory liquid, swimming with diced onions, was soup-rich.

Other appetizers ($7-$8) include grilled Spanish sausage as the one non-seafood offering on the menu. We were told that the stuffed artichoke, a special most nights, is quite popular, but we wanted to try out both of their mainstay soups, garlic and gazpacho ($2.95), in addition to the mussels.

Don't be fooled by the notion of garlic soup. Cooking reduces the strong flavor and removes the bite. There was a sweetness to our servings, with plenty of garlic pieces floating in the thickened chicken stock.

The gazpacho was as delicious, in its own tangy way. For my taste, the traditional cold soup -- minced vegetables in a light tomato base -- could have had more olive oil, but there was cilantro in every bite and the lemon juice teased the taste buds just enough.

The menu entrées are evenly split among about two dozen seafood and meat choices. From what I understand, their thick grilled lamb chops and mile-high filet mignon bring customers back, but we were more interested in the Spanish Tavern's traditional paellas and mariscadas (seafood stews and shellfish casseroles, respectively), served only as orders for two on the weekends. While the signature "Mariscada Spanish Tavern" ($16.95, for one) sounded good (in a sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, and wine), an adjoining item beckoned.

Indeed, "Mariscos Cardebal" ($15.95), we soon found, would be hard to beat. Half a lobster tail, four huge and tender sea scallops, and a few medium shrimp were united by a pink lobster sauce as creamy as bisque over fresh fettuccine. Not an enormous quantity, but quite delicious. (Order extra bread for this sauce, too.)

Encouraged by my soup, I chose "Pechuga de Pollo al Ajillo" ($12.50) for my main course -- two chicken breast fillets under a brown sauce swimming with garlic. Fresh steamed vegetables accompanied this, along with a saffroned rice. All quite enjoyable.

Overall, the service was friendly and attentive: a delay with our entrées resulted in a complimentary glass of wine for my companion. As for that sangria, it was superb. Manager Fred Luzzi obviously takes pride in it, judging from his description of the ingredients. Mid-shelf liquors, champagne rather than just wine, club soda or ginger ale fine-tuning the sweetness.

Iberian cooking may never replace Italian in Rhode Island, but as the Spanish Tavern reminds us, if it did, that wouldn't be such a bad fate at all.

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