Restaurant Review - Snack bars

Tapas turn Spanish sampling into American noshing

Despite its Spanish origins, the tapas dining trend is becoming increasingly Americanized. The tapas approach — to serve modest portions of multiple dishes, instead of huge ones of just a few — seems ideal for certain kinds of American palates. Terminally indecisive? Order everything. Uneducated taste buds? Get a crash course in a culture's cuisine. Too lazy to use utensils? Most tapas qualify as finger food. Dining on tapas is just the thing for tongues with short attention spans.

In Spain, the individual edibles that comprise tapas can vary greatly from region to region. "Tapa" comes from the Spanish word for "lid" and originally referred to a small food item that covered one's glass of wine to keep the flies out. But tapas in general evolved not so much from culinary patterns as social ones. Writer Alicia Rios describes the philosophy of tapeo as a tradition of going out to mingle with friends for an appetizer and an apéritif before lunch or dinner. The idea is not to have a single tapas bar, or tasca, as your sole destination, but to hit multiple ones on a kind of pub-crawl, where the food is as crucial as the friends and the spirits.

Andaluz Bar de Tapas in Midtown makes a bid for authenticity, with chef Pepe Linares of Barcelona replicating the seafood of coastal Spain in such dishes as mussels, grilled shrimp and esqueixada (fresh salted cod). The altitude of some of Andaluz's prices can give diners pause, as affordability is part of tapas culture, but many items arrive in big portions, where in Spain, tapas tend to be only a few bites.

Buckhead's Eclipse di Luna offers nearly all of its choices for $2.95 or $4.95. The culinary approach tends to be more Continental than strictly Spanish, but you can get authentic octopus specials as well as lip-smacking ribs, calamari and lamb skewers, while vegetarians can go for grilled portobello caps with goat cheese, marinated olives and spicy potatoes, or potatas.

Restaurants need not be from Spain itself to offer tapas. Virginia-Highland's Mambo offers tapas as part of its Cuban menu on most weekdays, while Oakhurst's Sweet Devil Moon boasts itself as "totally tapas" with a Peruvian accent.

Loosely defined, tapas proves a cross- cultural phenomenon under other names (French hors d'oeuvres and Russian zakusi can be treated as tapas). The similar dining style of meze or mezze originated in Persia and spread across the Middle East, Greece, Turkey and North Africa. It can involve simple snacks like fruit, nuts, olives or cubes of cheese as a between-meal accompaniment to wine or ouzo, but in other countries it incorporates more substantial dishes, particularly dips like hummus and baba ghanoush.

That explains why Sambuca Jazz Cafe uses the word "tapas" to describe its sample plate of tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanoush, and why hummus appears on the Peruvian menu of Sweet Devil Moon. Lebanon is renowned for perfecting meze dishes in flavor and appearance, and the new bistro Mezza in Oak Grove plans to offer more than 60 meze items, both traditional dishes like kebabs and tabbouleh as well as new innovations by owner and chef Jason Bitar.

Other restaurants have adapted tapas portions for their own purposes. The Virginia-Highland eatery Dish divides its menu options into entrees, appetizers and middle-sized "tastes," with the trademark taste being rosemary pine-nut popcorn. Buckhead's Cafe Tu Tu Tango is the most Americanized of the lot, having a philosophy that's not so much a unifying melting pot as everything-and-the-kitchen-sink. It's menu features snack sizes of everything from individual pizzas, Cajun egg rolls, BBQ chicken wings, oriental steak skewers and designer sandwiches.

At essence, tapas are glorified bar food, and many of the Latin-themed restaurants above serve sangria while offering showcases for flamenco musicians. If you like to hang out in a clean, well-lighted place with your pals, there's a limit to how many nachos, potato skins and jalapeño poppers you can be expected to eat. With tapas, though, the flavors and traditions of other cultures are now on tap.??