Tapas On The Town

Speakeasy Tosses Its Hat Into The Trendy Restaurant Ring
by Amy Farley

          Maybe it’s the middle-American glutton in me, but I thought a restaurant consisting of all appetizers would be less filling. Less delicious. The idea of grazing aroused skepticism in me—I am not a cow. I want to eat, not graze—eat big heaping portions of entrées with side dishes that are mine, all mine.
          So I’m a late-comer to the tapas revolution. So what?Speakeasy: No whispered passwords necessary.
          Speakeasy appears as if out of nowhere while walking down Broad Street—both times I dined there last week, I almost missed it. The door is set back in an entryway, hidden to those who don’t already know of it. In the door and up the stairwell, decorated with deep red walls and framed art, and you’re in the club.
          Tapas are a Spanish tradition, and in Spain are often given for free or for a pittance with drinks at bars. They’re Spain’s beer nuts. The American tapas movement adapted these little snacks into full meals, meant to be ordered in bulk and passed around among diners. Speakeasy finds itself somewhere in between the Spanish snack and the American entrée, with most tapas nearly big enough to be someone’s whole meal, some even coming with sides (like the juicy tenderloin kebabs served with a small portion of mashed potatoes).
          On a Friday night at around 7 p.m., the restaurant was full but not overcrowded and the service was fast. Our waiter was polite and quick with refills, but left us alone to eat for the majority of the meal. It’s the cordial service offered by an upscale restaurant for mid-range prices (tapas run from about $5 to $12).
          We ordered the spinach dip as an appetizer (still clinging to the concept of American courses) and it appeared quickly in a warm honey-wheat bread bowl with four toasted wedges of bread for dipping. The dip itself—hot, cheesy and smoky—complemented the slightly sweet bread.
          In no time at all our waiter brought out our “main course.” We’d barely made a dent in the spinach dip—I suppose I expect the service to be a tad slower at such a peak dinnertime. Nevertheless, we pushed aside the unfinished bread bowl to tend to the rest of our tapas feast.
          Everything came out arranged on small, white geometrically-shaped plates. My two medium-sized crab cakes (“traditional Southern style with mild wasabi sauce,” quoth the menu) were garnished with diced tomatoes and green and yellow peppers. The outside breading started crispy and stayed crispy (no wilting here), while the crab inside was warm and soft, the drizzle of wasabi sauce atop the cakes a nice, slightly sour contrast to the sweetness of the crab.
          The “sharing sides,” meant to feed four to six people (though for that to happen, everyone’s portion must be tiny), provide a nice companion to the “entrée” tapas. Speakeasy offers mashed potatoes (creamy and buttery), steamed vegetables in a lemon beurre blanc (consisting of asparagus spears, broccoli crowns, roasted potatoes and carrots) and black beans and rice (a bowl of white rice topped with a thick layer of beans). Ordering the sides seems to be a good choice for a more traditional meal. A portion of the mild beans and rice with the slightly spicy empanada (shredded Cuban beef baked into a crispy, but unfortunately bland, pastry) seem like they were meant for one another.
          The lull between dinner and dessert (our choice: the baked-to-order sugar cookies) allowed time to look around. The dim restaurant, flickering from the white tea light candles set on every table, is decorated in French vintage and rich, dark wood. Partitions are set up throughout, separating one seating area from another, lending the place an air of privacy. Three big windows on the far wall overlook Broad Street and North Campus, and the best tables are by the windows, where a long cushioned bench runs the length of the wall. Framed window panes hang from metal rafters of the ceiling as decoration, and a classy-looking bar sits across from the stairway. For Athens, this is all pretty sophisticated.
Speakeasy’s patronage is about what you’d expect from a nicer downtown restaurant. Mostly college students, guys bedecked in Polos, girls in their new flirty spring dresses. Adults who’d left the kids at home, and a few who didn’t, although it’s certainly not a very kid-friendly restaurant, with macaroni and cheese nowhere to be found.
          The highlight of the meal came in the form of sugar cookies. Four were served on a plate, drizzled with cream cheese icing and topped with cherries. An overpowering smell of sweet, sweet goodness wafted up from the dish, and biting into a cookie, the bottom was perfectly crispy, the top soft and warm. The cookie demanded to be savored. Whoever came up with the idea to fresh-bake the desserts to order deserves a gold star, because my cookie and I shared a moment.
          Speakeasy’s tapas formula, adapted to an American audience more familiar with the three-course meal, is stylishly executed. The food stands, for the most part, deliciously alone, and the atmosphere of the place stands out as a classy but mid-priced beacon among the Taco Stands and Taverns of Athens’ downtown. But that’s all trumped by those sugar cookies. Dinner doesn’t end much better than that.

269 E. Broad Street
Athens, GA 30601
(706) 546-5556

No comments: