Restaurant Review - Small plates

The tapas trend claims another casualty

Walking down the brick pathway to the entrance of Sabroso is truly intoxicating at this time of year. Clouds of jasmine cascade down the wall that surrounds the patio, and the air is full of the flower's perfume. Once you are inside, the dark wood and leather-accented room, which is sure to be cozy in the winter, seems like a cold cave. Back outside on the patio, the riot of flowers and an outdoor bar and fountain make you feel like you're on vacation. Perhaps a cheesy Florida vacation, but still a vacation.

These kinds of surroundings call for a drink. A big, tropical drink. Start with a mojito, or even better, a pitcher of margaritas. Both versions are handled well here, as long as you don't veer into the flavored realm, where a coconut mojito, for instance, tastes like someone slipped some suntan oil into your drink. Once you've settled in, it's time to get down to the tapas.

Ah, tapas. What is it about them that has captured the attention of so many restaurateurs while simultaneously attracting the disdain of so many critics? On the one hand, tapas are a fun, natural way to eat, particularly while drinking. Customers like the variety and freedom of choosing many dishes to make up one meal. On the other hand, it gives bad restaurants a new way to present themselves. The trend allows anyone to take their mediocre food, put it on small plates and call it tapas. No other trend has lent itself so well to that pedaling of bad food under the guise of hipness.

True tapas, the Spanish kind, can be heavenly. Innovative chefs who take the small-plate format and use it to create what amounts to a menu of appetizers will hear no complaints from me, either. What becomes problematic is when these ideas get muddied, when ingredients are given a vaguely Spanish treatment, put on bread plates and called tapas.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much what's going on at Sabroso. The ingredients are neither left to shine on their own nor given any kind of special treatment.

Herb-marinated artichoke hearts drizzled with sesame tahini vinaigrette are a little tough, not bad tasting but not very interesting. Grilled asparagus with Dijon shallot butter tastes like asparagus with butter, no more. I'm all for simple, but this is not the kind of farm-fresh asparagus that is capable of taking main stage on its own. It's not bad, it's just ... asparagus. With butter.

Olives stuffed with pork, chicken, bacon, onion and parmesan and then flash-fried lose the flavor of the main ingredients, leaving no olivey bite and no personality to the stuffing. They are perfectly fine bar snacks, but at $4.99 for about eight olives, that's an expensive stand-in for peanuts.

Meat and seafood tapas are also decent but boring. We tried a Thai mussels special, which translated to mussels in coconut milk. Cayenne slow-roasted pork was supposed to A) be cayenne rubbed, and B-) come with Granny Smith apple and ginger chutney. I could detect little spice, and the fruit that came with the dish may have been apple, but it had the cloying sweetness of pineapple. I'm a sucker for roasted pork, especially pulled pork, and the meat itself was delicious. But for the dish with the most personality, I found myself avoiding the extra flavor rather than embracing it.

The albondigas on the menu at Sabroso are a good example of Spanish cuisine taken and bastardized for the sake of the tapas revolution. Albondigas are Spanish meatballs, and should be spicy and refined compared to their Italian-American counterparts. At Sabroso, the albondigas would make a perfectly good meatball sub. Give them a little mozzarella, and you'd never know they weren't made by a guy named Vinnie. My dining partner defended their honor, claiming that they were a little spicy. But I stand my ground that they were simply meatballs with a Spanish name.

The vaguely Spanish theme disappears altogether when it comes time for dessert. Here, Sabroso is simply going for an American chain-restaurant-style selection. C'mon, not even a half-decent flan? Nope. I was hopeful that a berry tart would be an escape from the chocolate cake and tiramisu cheesecake, but it tasted like it came from a supermarket freezer isle.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the food, my mood remained upbeat, and it was mainly due to the patio and those large summer drinks (the wine list is worse than the food, so stick to what they know). Sabroso is a great place to go with your friends, enjoy the warm weather and get liquored up. Another pitcher of margaritas, please.