Location: 2773 Sidney St., South Side. 412-488-9000
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fare: Hot and cold small plates from Lebanon to Portugal
Atmosphere: Hip and stylish without pretension
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated tables outdoors
While tapas are Spanish in origin, in American restaurants the word has come to describe portions, not ingredients. And though few tapas menus omit olives and seafood, the rest is up to the tastes -- or whims -- of the kitchen. The concept of tapas has come to include just about anything served on a small plate. Sometimes the dishes are familiar; other times, tapas is an invitation to invention.
Tusca, SouthSideWorks' stylish new entry to the field, steers a middle course, with a menu that ranges the Mediterranean from Spain and Morocco through Italy and Greece to the Middle East. It includes cold and hot tapas, salads, pizza and flatbreads, pastas, rice, seafood and sandwiches (available at lunchtime). While some tapas restaurants serve tidbits, Tusca's portions are generous. Each plate of tapas could easily be shared by two or more, and plates from the other categories seemed comparable. Three dishes would be ample for a couple; we were stuffed with four.
While the warmly colored, subtly defined seating areas of Tusca's dining room were inviting, on a sultry summer evening the action was on the sidewalk. The hostess hustled us over to an empty table before someone else could claim it, and we started ordering food as we enjoyed a pitcher of sangria and the best of all mealtime activities, people-watching.
A large, but mediocre, plate of olives was quickly eclipsed by the arrival of creamy polenta. The dish, with wild mushroom, garlic, herbs and artichoke ragout, was a rich, thick porridge that tasted cheesy despite containing no cheese. Angelique called it elegant comfort food, while Jason found the flavors timid. Partly this was because the artichoke, whose vegetal tang played against the mild, creamy polenta, was mounded in the middle of the dish rather than being distributed throughout. Once we realized this, it was nothing that a good swirl with the fork couldn't fix.
On a Middle Eastern note, kafta was a steak-shaped patty of ground lamb, criss-crossed with grill marks and served on a bed of wilted, lemon-dressed greens. The lamb was savory, if a bit dry, and lightly seasoned with cilantro, cumin, coriander and mint. Cool, tangy yogurt and juicy cucumber chunks added depth and dimension to the flavor, making this dish perfect for a hot summer evening. If only there had been more of the yogurt and cukes; we had to ration these humble toppings severely to enjoy some with every bite of lamb.
White cannellini beans with escarole were served in a sauce so creamy and richly flavored that it gave the dish the character of a beans-and-greens alfredo. Sherry, the not-so-secret ingredient, lent a bittersweet note that distinguished Tusca's version of this Italian staple from others we've tried.
Roasted colossal shrimp lived up to their name: a trio of beyond-jumbo crustaceans, roasted to pink perfection in their shells, swimming in cilantro butter studded with preserved lemon. Angelique can be fussy about peeling shrimp, but these beauties were worth the effort, and the citrusy flavors of the cilantro and lemon were as bright and summery as sunshine itself.
Would we like any dessert? When it is made in-house, the answer is almost always yes. We opted for Tusca's chocolate-orange soufflé cake (the only chocolate dessert that night that was truly cocoa-based, not white). Truly more of a dense, moist soufflé than an airy, crumby cake, this luxurious confection was packed with intense cocoa flavor and topped with "wilted" -- not fluffy -- whipped cream and candied orange peel.
At Tusca, we almost wished the portions were smaller so that we could have tried more dishes. With a well-balanced menu and appealing preparations, Tusca offers a taste of southern European dining on the South Side.
In last week's issue the name of the restaurant was inadvertently misspelled. It should have read Thai Tom Yum Kung.