Tapas have taken an interesting trajectory in American restaurants. From its authentic origins in Spanish cuisine, the concept soon broadened to become near-synonymous with appetizer-size portions of anything. Meanwhile, appetizers themselves morphed into “small plates,” designed — like their Spanish antecedents — to encourage a more informal, flexible and adventurous style of dining. And with that, the word tapas has more or less shrunk back to its original, specifically Spanish meaning.
So it is at Morcilla, the new Butler Street venture of charcuterie hero Justin Severino. In a city that had scarcely heard of tapas 10 years ago, Severino goes all in to create the kind of urban tapas experience one might have in Seville or Madrid, where an evening out entails roaming from bar to bar and grazing on a tapa or two at each stop. To encourage this kind of sophisticated snacking, the front of the restaurant features a pintoso, a standing-room-only bar topped with a display case of prepared pintxos. These are small snacks on toast that uncannily resemble sushi or, even more fancifully, petit-fours in their artful bite-sized-ness.
But that’s a mere starting point. On the menu we received when seated at our table, there were more than a dozen pintxo options ranging from classic jamon-wrapped tortilla to oyster escabeche with pickled grapes. All were grounded in classic Spanish preparations and ingredients — jamon, bacalao (salt cod), nuts. But touches like ramp aioli speak to both local produce and Severino’s own Italian background, while bold flavor combinations, such as white asparagus with vanilla, sherry, chervil and orange blossom, brought adventurousness without ever abandoning the essence of the tapas form.
Our jamon-wrapped tortilla Española was mild and perfectly balanced; even the relish of chopped smoked olives on top didn’t tip its pleasingly salty savor. A crab-and-tarragon churro was long and coiled upon itself like a friendly dough serpent. Soft and succulent, it was irresistible dipped in the accompanying idiazadal fondue sauce, made from a smoky sheep-milk cheese.
In addition to pintxos, the menu includes montaditos (little sandwiches on rolls), croquetas (savory fried cakes) and plates (small entrees), as well as platters (more suitable for sharing). But even the smallest morsels seemed designed for sharing and nibbling, in part because the flavors were so varied and interesting that it was near-impossible to keep them for ourselves, or to resist sampling off another’s plate.
Croquetas were comprised mostly of traditional ingredients — goat cheese, salt cod, jamon — with upscale flourishes such as rhubarb and rosemary or lemon-honey. Pig’s feet and cheeks, though, was a Severino special. Not only was the filling untraditional and the pork meltingly, lusciously tender, but the whole approach, more like a pastry than a fried cake, was amazing.
Montadito Matrimonio was indeed a great marriage of punchy salted black anchovies and vinegary, freshly marinated white ones dressed in lemony olive oil. But the Morcilla sausage montadito was Angelique’s favorite: big, soft, mild yet robust blood sausage, served with a delectable dollop of spinach bechamel and tiny, sweet piquillo peppers.
A plate of pulpo escabeche was also extraordinary. Firm yet tender marinated octopus tentacles kept harmonious company with creamy pieces of boiled potato, piquant rings of pepper and, wondrously, potato espuma, or potato foam. Essentially mashed potatoes whipped to a consistency as light and fluffy as whipped cream, it lent this dish an otherworldly richness. On a more poetic menu, this dish might be called “Octopus in the Clouds.”
A final plate, conserva de cerdo a la plancha, was a final triumph, a symphonic harmony of sweet pepper piperade enriched with supple confit pork. Strips of juicy griddled pork doubled down on the porcine succulence, while firm morsels of garbanzo and strips of faintly bitter rapini cut any excess richness.
All of this was enjoyed in an atmosphere unmistakably Spanish, with Moorish accents and laser-cut plywood lanterns projecting geometric patterns on the walls. These gorgeous lanterns, simultaneously traditional and modern, casual and sophisticated, were a perfect emblem of Morcilla’s approach to tapas.