Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight
Prices: Tapas $4-9; entrees $10-15
Fare: Spanish-style tapas and entrees
Atmosphere: Turn-of-the-20th-century bar and diner
Liquor: Full bar
As a couple famous among our friends for dining at an hour when others are yawning in their pajamas, we love tapas, those sophisticated snacks that sustain Spanish diners until their late-night suppers. Of course, on this side of the Atlantic, tapas are more often enjoyed as a multi-course meal unto themselves. Locally, the concept has inspired a few highly palatable interpretations, but more often, it has gotten lost in translation, with Pittsburgh restaurants re-casting the same old tired appetizers (crab cakes again, anyone?) as trendy "small plates" in hopes that Continental élan will reinvigorate homegrown familiarity.
And so we nearly sustained whiplash turning our heads when the blood-red sign for Tasca Navarre appeared on Penn Avenue in the Strip. Its gestural bull logo instantly evokes Iberia, with its cuisine at once accessible and exotic to American tastes that long ago assimilated Italian and French. Inside, a massive Victorian bar, deep claret-colored walls and amoebic modern light fixtures invited us to expect a melding of traditional and modern sensibilities. Our anticipation mounted as we examined a menu dominated by seemingly authentically Spanish tapas.
Despite our server's admonition that the portions are not petite, we ordered with abandon, calling out many of the same must-haves. Our appetites were less at risk than the table, which quickly overflowed with savory meat, seafood and sauces. Actually, one sauce made an appearance in two dishes, performing dual roles with equal alacrity: a Romesco sauce for meatballs and a garlic-herb chimichurri for filet on toast. The thick puree of red peppers, tomatoes, herbs and olive oil had a rich flavor that belied its brief ingredient list and worked well with both the simple, tender steak on toast points and the dense, herbed pork studded with pine nuts.
Indulging in another toast-based plate, Jason tried the wild mushroom crostini, topped with dark, richly flavored mushrooms mixed with savory strips of prosciutto and creamy blue cheese. The blue cheese was too scant to provide much of its trademark pungency, but the overall effect was a delicious example of mushrooms boldly taking center stage the way meat normally does.
Nothing sounded more classically Spanish than sizzling chorizo with peppers in sherry. Alas, the promise exceeded the delivery: There was no sizzle to be heard -- or tasted, for that matter. In this town that takes its sausage so seriously, this dish's preparation failed to set it apart.
The Spanish tortilla, similar to a frittata, was a skillet-sized round of firm, fluffy egg containing slivers of potato and snippets of herbs. A little more salt was all it needed to become a satisfying vegetarian course. Shrimp with spicy chili and beer featured succulent shellfish in a light but rich broth, infused with lots of garlic but balanced with a complex commingling of herbal flavors, plus the hoppiness of the beer.
While it features tapas, Tasca Navarre currently offers several alternatives: paella, that archetypal Spanish seafood-and-rice stew; pasta; wraps, salads and soups. In March, this menu is scheduled for a revision in which some seasonal items will be added and some entrees removed. In the meantime, we could not resist trying the corn chowder with lobster and bacon. Some of the corn was chopped, but none was pureed, resulting in a rustic soup we could have eaten with a fork. The bacon was a deliciously smoky, crisp counterpoint to the corn's toothsome kernels, and the rich, briny lobster was a surprisingly apt addition. We hope this substantial, almost decadent soup survives the cut when the new menu is written.
The dessert list was brief: flan, chocolate cake and cheesecake. The kitchen was out of the first and most Spanish of these, so we opted for cheesecake. Jason, raised on the products of New York City bakeries, is the connoisseur here, and he pronounced Tasca Navarre's cake to be excellent: creamy, sweet and dense without being dry.
In all, we were pleased with our experience at Tasca Navarre. Though it was not quite the tapas Español of our dreams, the reality is more true to its origins than any other yet on offer in Pittsburgh.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars