Try to Tapa This

Mad Park's latest culinary hot spot specializes in Basque cuisine and Spanish wines.

Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez had cooked for the royalty of Spain and earned his master-chef certification in Europe before landing in Seattle seven years ago. He bounced around—chef de cuisine at Maximilien's, executive chef at Prego, a stint at the Ruins—and met a pastry chef named Carolin Messier, who dreamt of opening a catering business. Dreams merged, the chef married the dessert maker, and Harvest Vine Catering was born in 1995. Harvest Vine

2701 E Madison, 320-9771

Tue-Sat 11am-9pm

Beer and wine; MC, V By mid-1998 their catering concern had outgrown their facilities, and they set about opening a storefront. Their plan was to augment their thriving take-out operation with a taverna in the European tradition: few seats, light meals, a tapas bar, barely a restaurant at all. They found a tiny former fish market in Madison Valley—500 square feet by a generous guess—and resolved that the restaurant wasn't going to be the main focus of their business. Or so they thought. Three months after opening Harvest Vine, the little sideline has quietly become the toast of Seattle foodies. Weekend evenings you can see them sidled three deep up to the copper tapas bar, savoring from the deep list of Spanish wines and noshing off little platefuls of the Basque cuisine de Jimenez brought from his native San Sebastian. Sheer demand has forced the couple to extend their hours and get really creative with the seating arrangements. One consequence of all this proximity is that a glowing restaurant review will overwhelm the place. More on this later. Another—fittingly, for caterers—is that for the diner, Harvest Vine feels like a really good dinner party. When we walked into the cozy, flickering room we knew nobody; by the time we left we had exchanged greetings and tapas recommendations and wine advice with everyone else in the place—including Joseph, who in his open kitchen, flames licking at his eyebrows (looking with disconcerting exactitude like Peter Sellers), is only a couple of feet away. Add to this the steady stream of devotees who drop in for their take-away orders, and the result is an affable chaos, capably presided over by the ever-resourceful Carolin. We made our first visit an evening of tapas, or Spanish appetizers. De Jimenez's menu lists sandwiches, salads, soups, a couple of entree specials, and two varieties of paella, but its two dozen varieties of hot and cold tapas are the taverna's heart and soul. We began with two standbys of the cuisine: empanadas ($5.25), that day made with chorizo, and tortilla Espa� ($4). Of the former I've never encountered better: a smooth sausage mixture between layers of perfect flaky pastry. The latter, an egg and potato torte cut into wedges and served with marinated red onions, was mild and right. Thus began a culinary odyssey, as four forks bobbed and dived into eight more little plates. (When our wee table got too crowded, we just balanced the plates in our laps.) Tapas are not inaccessibly exotic or necessarily spicy; what we ordered under the tutelage of our Spanish server a baby could have enjoyed. Patatas alioli ($3.50), flavorful Yukon Gold potatoes generously draped in a garlicky mayonnaise, were creamy and delicious. More creamy and delicious were the pimientos del piquillo ($6.50), roasted Navarran peppers stuffed with the Iberian staple of salt cod mashed with potatoes. A little plate of saut饤 shrimp ($8.75) was fragrant and winey, its sauce great for soaking with pieces of La Panzanella's excellent bread. Mindful that dinner specials are available in tapa-size, we ordered a little plate of that night's lamb thin-sliced over shallot paste ($8.95 as a tapa; $18 as dinner) and swooned over the tenderness of the meat and savory shallot counterpoint. Coliflor al horno ($5.50), a sweetish gratin of cauliflower with tomato sauce and manchego cheese, was creamy bliss. We enjoyed it with the champi�s al ajillo Jerezano ($5), or garlic-saut饤 mushrooms, in spite of the fact that they represented the sole misstep of the evening—too salty. Fat and happy but not quite overstuffed, we requested one last tapa: pulpo de feira ($7), or Galician-style octopus. Tender, tender pieces of the creature, its little suction cups liberally oiled and dusted with paprika, were served with thick discs of Yukon Gold. Very nice. They brought the bill—$90-something for more than enough food for four, plus a fine bottle of Spanish wine—and graciously rolled us out onto the sidewalk. When we came back on a weeknight there was a little more room between the bodies. We ordered paella with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables ($14.50 per person, two-person minimum), which takes a half-hour for the chef to prepare, and bided the time with two tapas-sized orders of the evening's special marinated lamb ($8.25 as a tapa, $17.95 as dinner). The tender meat had been gently grilled with a sauce of tomato and sweet Basque Txacoli wine, and was exquisite over a light serving of al dente Madrilenian rice. The paella was fine—crunchy Valencian rice all caramely with onions and dotted with peppers and topped with overcooked shrimp and a couple of nicely charred chicken legs—but not showstopping in its subtlety or finesse, as the tapas had predisposed us to expect. For my money, tapas and a recommendation off the extraordinary wine list is the way to go at Harvest Vine. And then dessert—which is showstopping. We ordered a sensational espresso flan ($3.75) and a fat square of warm bread pudding with bourbon sauce ($3.75) and had no trouble finishing both of them. Happily, these and more of Carolin's desserts will be available a few doors down when the new Harvest Vine Pastry (2711 E Madison) opens in the next few weeks. "You better make that next month," corrects Carolin, who explains that the restaurant has been so unexpectedly slammed she's had to turn away catering business and put off the opening of her dessert shop. Indeed, it is with mixed emotions that I submit this review at all, which probably eliminates all chance of ever again snaring one of the three tables and doubtless pushes the opening of Harvest Vine Pastry into the even more distant future. Sigh. My advice? Go yesterday.

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