Friday, January 18, 2008

Notes Toward a Theory of Tapas (El Olivo, 21-15 31st Street)

Provincial as we are, we'd never seen white asparagus before our trip to El Olivo, a tapas restaurant on a stretch of 31st Street where the subway dare not go. We later found out that the white asparagus is a variety preferred in Europe, but in our minds it became a metaphor for El Olivo's cuisine: limp, bloated, drained of color and life.

Not that anyone present seemed to mind -- the joint was jumping with families, including a multigenerational birthday party, and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. As were we: No matter how oily or flaccid the dishes may be, that a group has chosen to have tapas at all suggests an open readiness to have a good time. After all, you wouldn't agree to have tapas unless you trusted you were to be accompanied by people you enjoy, people with whom you can make group decisions and feel comfortable sharing with. They presume community among a group and then help reinforce it. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has written of the French tradition of pouring a neighboring stranger a glass of wine from your bottle, calling it "an assertion of good grace which does away with mutual uncertainty." Sharing tapas has the same effect.

So at El Olivo, we made a few of these community-building group decisions and agreed on the following: a plate of Serrano ham and manchego, oily anchovies that looked as unappetizing as they tasted, rubbery octopus, shrimp in a watery tomato sauce, that unspeakable asparagus, and assorted other forgettables. That's another social prerequisite with tapas: You must be among people you like well enough to be able to confess, after a veneer of politeness during the initial tasting, that you are united in the opinion of ick.

In America, the definition of what counts as tapas is flexible, and like most New Yorkers, we were accustomed to tapas bars with more flair, offering bacon-wrapped figs, gourmet Spanish tortillas, manchego from hand-fed cows, and so on. In Spain, the custom is to wander from tapas bar to tapas bar, cherry-picking the best at each place, and you have to be in the know to order well. We were not in the know at El Olivo, and while that was perhaps our main problem, we ordered enough food that something besides the ham and cheese plate should have meet a baseline of pleasant. Maybe there's a tapas or two that explains El Olivo's longevity -- or maybe it's the simple merriment of the place that explains the bustle and cheer, or the pleasant, prompt service. Maybe it's the obligatory items of armor that seem to grace the walls of every Spanish restaurant in the city. More likely, it was the fine sangria, which we downed in large quantities to salve our disappointment over the food.

Three quarters of the way through the meal, we started talking about getting cupcakes at Martha's Bakery, on Ditmars Boulevard. These turned out to be the best part of the meal. We tried. We really, really tried. But no matter how inauthentic it may be, we will take our Americanized bacon-wrapped tapas finery over El Olivo's insipid offerings any day.

Price: Too expensive.
Will we go again? No, unless heavily drugged.

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