353 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Spain’s on the same latitude as New York, so in winter the rain in Spain must mainly be a pain. I love eating Spanish food in rotten weather — all that warming olive oil and garlic and the rich, comforting flavors of great pig products and marinated Mediterranean veggies and rich shellfish. Potatoes, too — the Spaniards picked ’em up from the Incas and ran with them. Currently, Cafe Sevilla’s also bending over backward to offer another form of comfort — affordable cooking to warm us in the chill of the recession. This fall, they revised the menu to add a group of middle-size tapas. They’re smaller than entrées, but substantial enough to serve as a main dish for one, or an ample grazing plate for sharers. Bottom line: Typical food-costs for a filling, tasty meal for two can run about $25 a person (food only), with wider flavor options at that price for a foursome sharing. A foursome ordering sampler tapas platters on a half-off Wednesday night is really in the catbird seat.
I returned to Sevilla (after several years’ absence, pursuing other restaurants) to try out as many of their new dishes as possible. I was sorry to find quite a few old favorites (e.g., pinxos morunos, caracoles Catalán, empanada Barcelona) banished from the menu. The new menu has another difference: It’s pretty much all in English now. We started with a round of tropical-adventure cocktails, which cost about the same here (e.g., $8 or $9) as bottom-shelf wines by the glass at higher-end eateries. Yoda (Jim’s laid-back computer-guru and biz partner but much nicer looking than the Star Wars wise guy) tried a pomegranate mojito, tart enough to be interesting. Michelle’s passion-fruit mojito was even more puckery, and all the better for it. Jim got a shot of Mocambo, great dark rum. My caipirinha was the loser, unbearably sweet with no hint of fresh mashed limes. After the cocktails, we switched to a pitcher of white sangria, an interesting change from red, but the excellent red sangria is really much better.
Our food came quickly — perhaps too quickly, as you’ll soon learn. We started out brilliantly with a new dish of dates stuffed with Cabrales bleu cheese, wrapped in bacon, and oven-blasted with a cider-vinegar glaze. Just imagine those flavors and textures hitting your mouth all at once — soft and musky and sweet inside, crispy, salty, and tangy on the surface. Almost as good as the stuffed dates at Whisknladle, and that’s saying a mouthful.
Green (New Zealand) mussels escabeche are marinated in their shells in olive oil and lemon until they “self-cook”; they come with a not-too-spicy serrano chile salsa. The mussels, firm from their acidic bath, taste fresh, briny, and clean — rapid turnover at Sevilla keeps them so.
A diversion: Jim and Michelle were mussels demi-vierges, having eaten them rarely and doubtfully in the past. “Aren’t they usually sort of smelly?” Michelle asked. “Oh, gawd,” I said. “Wherever you ate them before, they’d obviously spent so long in the walk-in, they had time to piss all over themselves and each other.” I never once encountered stinky mussels until I moved to San Diego. Here, they’re almost endemic — I’ve met them five times in eight years, including at three high-end restaurants. Solve the problem by standing up for yourself: If they smell like sewage, insist on returning them to the kitchen. (I don’t know how the line-chefs cooking them can pass them on to customers — you can’t miss the reek.) This is one issue worth making a fuss about, because, believe me, stinky mussels will make you sick as a dog. But please, forget you read this in conjunction with Sevilla, because the mussels here are just aces!
A sampler platter of cold marinated tapas was my favorite dish of the evening. It included artichoke hearts with Spanish ham, mushrooms in balsamic vinaigrette, meaty and flavorful roasted piquillo peppers, and spicy octopus — every bite a treat. (I wish Sevilla would make the classic tapa of piquillo peppers stuffed with Spanish anchovies, once tasted, forever missed.…)
Lamb chops Madrileños offers two small, marinated, grilled rib chops served over a smoky fava-bean stew, garnished with bits of several types of Spanish sausage. The marinade is subtle but effective — even though the chops are cooked well done, they are savory, and the beans are an earthy pleasure. For a few dollars less, you can also get the beans alone (with a bit more sausage), called Fabada, from the “tapitas” menu.
Our most expensive dish ($23 for a small plateful of slices) was Jamón Ibérico, fresh-sliced gourmet ham made from a special breed of Spanish black pigs, descended from wild boars. A year ago, I tasted a tidbit of the top grade (called jamón ibérico de bellota — bellota apparently means “acorn-fed”) at the Fancy Food Show. Made from two-year-old free-range pigs living in the forest and feeding exclusively on wild acorns and roots, this exorbitant morsel was the sweetest, most intense and complex ham I’d ever sampled. Alas, turns out that there are also lower grades of the divine meat, from the same breed of pigs fed more conventionally on grain. That, evidently, is what Sevilla offers, and while it tastes very good, it’s not that much better than the far less exorbitant jamón serrano, which appears elsewhere on the menu for just $8.50 a portion. (You could create your own fabulous tapa by pulling out elements from the sampler plates, all available separately, to combine serrano ham, piquillo peppers, and Manchego cheese. Although your new combo will cost about the same as the Ibérico, it might taste more fulfilling.)
Before moving on to the dishes you probably shouldn’t order, I want to mention some of the best ones I’ve eaten here at earlier visits, assuming the restaurant hasn’t changed or cheapened its winning formulae. The lobster-and-seafood bisque is a generous, creamy bowlful topped by an airy puff-pastry crown. The server punctures the center of the crust and pours in a jigger of sherry, which lends a bright, nutty nip to the sumptuous, velvety liquid, dotted with morsels of shrimp and tender mussel-meats. The fried calamari are actually “frizzled” with paprika-laden flour (rather than the usual heavy batter). The light, crisp coating complements tender squid rounds, which stay succulent even as they cool. If you want a dip, look to the tapa of alioli (the Spanish version of aioli, with minced fresh basil and chives) and oregano-spiked tomato dip, served with your choice of French bread or (better yet) Kalamata olive loaf. For an entrée, roast pork tenderloin has fine meat in a spiced honey-port sauce, perfumed with cloves and not oversweet. Alongside are small cooked tomato halves filled with spinach and topped with mild, melted Manchego cheese. In the center of the plate is a pile of ideal garlic mash (also available as a tapa), with just a touch of garlic, a waft of Manchego cheese for body, and the satiny unctuousness of red potatoes.