If you listened carefully, through the din and drone emanating from the corner of 20th and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia on a Saturday night in July, you would have heard a rather tired yawn.
That was me.
It is strange how consensus can sometimes run counter-intuitively to one’s gut. After an informal survey of opinions among a certain subset of Philly foodie culture, Tinto seemed to be the favored one of Chef Jose Garces’s two Philadelphia small plates-concept restaurants.
Truth be told, Tinto’s menu (dominated by pintxos) seemed less interesting to me than Amada’s (see “review: subtle innovation…“). And after two meals at Tinto in late July, I concluded that this was true.
Maybe it’s due to my admitted lack of expertise in Basque cuisine. Maybe I don’t inherently take to Basque cuisine as I do with others (I doubt this is the case; I’ve had it and love it.). Maybe I was unfairly judging a book by its cover.
Or maybe, the food at Tinto is just less interesting than Amada’s.
Is the food bad? Judging by the dozen-plus plates my friends and I tried, certainly, it is not. The Alcachofas con Trufas, for example, were excellent. The baby artichoke hearts were nicely cooked, had awesome flavor and aroma (a touch of truffle oil), and demonstrated a wonderful usage of Idiazabal, which lent a bit of smokiness. Given the amount of black truffles and work involved (peeling and prepping the artichokes), I think $12 was fair, if not just a tad over-estimated.
But the large majority of what I encountered was rather forgettable.
Some of Tinto’s food felt as if Garces was forcing a resisting Basque culture into a modern, trendy mold – an awkward, if not uncomfortable proposition.
Take, for example, the Gateaux Basque ($8). They should put quotes around the name of this dessert. Or, at the very least, put quotes around the adjective “Traditional” on the menu description. This was gateau basque, nominally, in flavor, but certainly not in form. These one-bite florets were more like shortbread petits fours with pastry cream topped with meaty, syrupy cherries. Actually, that’s exactly what they were.
So maybe we chose the wrong dessert. Or, maybe I should know better than to use a dessert as an example of the uninteresting. They rarely are interesting. And sadly, they rarely are “traditional” – especially when they say they are.
Take, instead, the De Res Bocadillo, a mini sandwich with braised short rib meat, bacon, asparagus and celery root aioli ($10). Meh. The meat was soft and flavorful, but otherwise, taken as a whole, it was rather ordinary. And I’m not sure which part of the creation, other than the name, was particularly Basque.
Maybe the point, which I seem to want to overlook, is that Tinto’s goal is to make Basque food look hyper-modern. Consider the Pulpo ($9). Amassed in one corner of a tubular plate streaked with pequillo pepper “paint” were slices of octopus and potatoes frothing with bubbles. A beach of lemon “powder” stretched along the northern edge.
Beautiful? Yes. Like the Pulpo, many of Tinto’s dishes exhibited trendy landscaping.
Good? Not bad, but not great. I’ve had much better octopus for far less.
Pretty plating didn’t help the Veal with Sweetbreads either. Both the veal and the sweetbread (what I call sweetbread schnitzel – they were flattened, breaded, and fried) were dull. The halved,lacquered fig that came as an accompaniment, however, was probably the best morsel of the evening. Sticky and sweet, the molten nugget tasted like a hundred bottles of Armagnac.
Or maybe, Tinto’s purpose is to serve as a stretch of trendy turf on which Philly’s young and hip crowd can be “scene” and, conveniently, get decent food and decent drink. To this end, Tinto is successful (especially the latter of the two elements, as demonstrated by my two thirsty Wharton Executive MBA compatriots who enjoyed a couple of pitchers of the house sangria, which seemed very similar to the “red sangria” I tasted at Amada a couple days before). Providing a social outlet is a community service project that Tinto supports with excitement. Making money, however, is a goal it pursues with vigor.
The wildly over-priced prawns on the Brochette de Gambas ($6 per prawn) were just a smidgen dry and a tad flavorless. The luscious head cream, however, was a delight. And Berkshire pork belly has seen more tender and flavorful times. The matchbox-size cuts, riding on slices of baguette (“montaditos”) and topped with batons of Granny Smith apple, lacked any hint of the honey lacquering that had sounded so appealing on paper. At $4 apiece, they were a little pricey
By comparison, the De Pato montadito was much better ($10 for 2). Bundles of duck confit wrapped in Serrano ham teamed up with sweet, macerated black cherries on a velvety swatch of funky La Peral “spread.” The contrast was terrific.
The Bacalao a la Viscaina ($16), a brick of buttery black cod on a cushion of thinly shaved Serrano ham and topped with a savory-tart olive escabeche was also tasty, although the “interpreted” combination of soft white fish with leathery ham is one that has always confounded me (click here, and here, for example).
We tried three cheeses – Leonora, a semi-aged Spanish goat cheese; La Peral, a mixed-milk blue from the Northern Spain, and Le Moulis, a firm French cow’s milk cheese from the Pyranees – and they were all in good shape ($12 for the Queso Mixto selection of three – no choice). So were the tissue-thin slips of charcuterie we sampled, served with a quenelle of bland egg salad ($15 for a “mixto” plate of four – no choice).
Whereas Amada defined and hit that “reinvented” Spanish target by being anchored to tradition with sensible interjections of innovation, Tinto seemed concerned more with style than substance and suffers from over-conceptualization.
I returned to Tinto for brunch the next morning (on my way to the airport). The reason for this decision was primarily motivated by the same reason I chose to dine at Tinto (and not at Osteria) the night before: its proximity to Capogiro (read “gelato boy gone wild…”). I walked across the street after both of my Tinto meals and finished them off with a couple of scoops of the fluffy gelato.
They ran out of lobster, so I settled for Revuelto de Cangrejo instead of Revuelto de Langosta, one of the few brunch items that is offered on their dinner menu ($12). The scrambled eggs, with the simulacrum of creamy brains, were full of lump crab meat and rife with truffle oil. The eggs were served with four slices of baguette generously coated with butter flecked with black truffle. I cannot complain about the over-aggressive “truffling” of this dish, nor its buttery comfort, but two bites was all I could manage. (And this is another difference between Tinto and Amada, and, perhaps more significantly, a difference between the French-influenced Basque cuisine and the more Catalan/Iberian-minded Spanish cuisine: Tinto does not shy from using butter.)
I recalled my favorite cheese from the night before, Le Moulis, for an encore. It brought with it slices of two other amiable cheeses, Abbaye de Belloc and Idiazabel, on a dish of Queso Mixto ($15).
I also ordered a yard of Jamon de Campo, which, like the night before, was sliced tissue-thin and served with egg salad ($8). The ham, like the cheese, was great. And so were the two salads I had, which were refreshingly simple. In my limited experience, these – the least finessed and manipulated of Tinto’s cuisine (like the wonderful cigar-like Idiazabel “ crisps” served as a complimentary pre-cursor to our dinner) – were the restaurant’s strongest suit.
Executive Chef/Owner Jose Garces
114 South 20th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103