As you’re zooming north up Dale Mabry with tapas on your mind, keep your eyes peeled as you cross W. Busch Blvd. Soon, among the plethora of signs that overwhelm your gaze with business after business, you’ll see it looming on your right. Big red letters on a backlit white sign: V – I – Z –C – A – Y – A. But unless your eagle eyes are prepared beforehand, chances are you’ll miss the turn into the parking lot — because if you reach the sign, you’ve gone too far.
However, once you find your way inside, you’ll be treated to Vizcaya’s splendid new renovation and expansion. When you enter, you’ll see the new design that transforms the dining room and turns old offices into a handsome new wing. The décor is resplendent with crisp white linens and high-topped red booths, matching colorful pendant lights and a series of modernist black-and-white paintings with variations on a toro-toro-toro theme. No bull.
Even though the dinner menu has Chilean sea bass, two kinds of paella, lamb shanks, and a Spanish version of veal scalloppini with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese, my dining companions are angling for tapas.
While we discuss how many small plates it will take to feed our table, and the relative merits of the 38 tapas selections on the menu, we decide to grab some glasses of wine to ease the pain of what looks to be an arduous task. The selection of wines by the glass is small, but they cover all the bases at bargain prices with very generous pours; we are a happy table indeed.
So we sip, sip, sip and chat, chat, chat and pick, pick, pick. Our server recommends the dates stuffed with Manchego cheese and Serrano ham wrapped in bacon, which is then fried and served with a side of honey aioli. “I don’t like dates,” proclaims a friend. Oooooh, look … fresh sea scallops with imported chorizo and sherry vinegar beurre blanc. “No shellfish for me,” another companion demurs.
We finally settle on a group of dishes that makes everybody happy while we dip crusty warm bread into two pools of fruity olive oil separated by three colorful and tasty stripes. There’s a spicy line of red pepper coulis, a balsamic vinegar reduction, and a fat squiggle of creamy garlic and white bean paste.
The new kitchen churns out dishes at a fevered pace, which is wonderful, because half the fun of tapas is sharing. In quick succession, we’re juggling a spectrum of Spanish flavors.
On the cold side, there’s tartar de atún and pâté de la casa. Vizcaya’s version of classic tuna tartare appears to be chopped by machine rather than by hand which softens the texture and gives it a light pink haze and, while fresh ginger provides a nice kick, the fish is totally overwhelmed. So while it’s tasty, it’s not primarily about the tuna. The homemade pâté is a timbale of creamy duck liver seasoned with Madagascar green peppercorns and a touch of aged Spanish brandy. It’s served with a “forest” jelly of indeterminate origin that adds welcome sweetness to balance out the liver as it is spread on perfect crispy crostini.
As we move to the hot dishes, pulpo a la gallega features imported octopus baked on a wooden plate with pimentón, the wonderful Spanish smoked paprika, and drizzled with olive oil. I’ve never had octopus so tender, so perhaps the soft potato slices (that form the base for the dish) would be better off with a little more bite. Still, this is an eye-opener if you’re used to octopus that is grilled.
The remaining plates on the hot side of the ledger are certainly tasty, but one-dimensional. Merluzita rellena stuffs Spain’s favorite fish (a cousin to hake) with a lobster salad and floats it in a seafood bisque. Berenjena con queso de cabra’s caramelized eggplant slices are rolled with a mixture of cheeses and topped with a piquillo pepper sauce. Albondigas catalanas — homemade meatballs — are lightly seasoned with wild mushrooms and pimentos. And Rabo de toro braises choice oxtails Andalusian style and provides that deep umami kick that makes oxtail lovers purr even as it lacks a thrill to surprise your palate.
The flan is straightforward textbook custard that’s more gelatinous than creamy, and the key lime pie is just odd. While it seems to have the traditional base using condensed milk, there’s not even a hint of lime. It doesn’t taste bad; it just reminds us all of cardamom, not citrus. And, inexplicably, it’s served partially overlapping what can only be described as a cousin of crème brûlée, with a generous schmear of free-form custard topped by a crisp dark disc of melted sugar. It’s the weird love child of two perennial restaurant favorites’ unwanted pregnancy.
Vizcaya is fun and tasty, but with recent memories of Spanish gastronomy from a fall vacation where there was surprise at every turn, I’d love for them to kick it up a notch to match their splendid new dining room. Then all will be right with the world.
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