TAPAS—FROM THE SPANISH verb "tapar," or to cover—originally consisted of ham or chorizo speared on a toothpick over the mouth of a sherry glass and were designed to keep flies out of the sherry. Who'd have thought flies wouldn't eat ham? Regardless, it seems to have worked; there's not a fly in sight at Marcha, a six-month-old establishment on First and Union. The restaurants gods unanimously voted to cover Seattle with a thick coating of tapas establishments; nevertheless, concerned about tapas overkill and the sterile "New Seattle" feel of the SoMar (south of the Market) area, we couldn't deny our attraction to small foods on tiny plates.
1400 First, 903-1474 daily 11:30am-2am MC, V, AE; full bar
Our first visit to Marcha did little to assuage our skepticism, as we worked our way through some happy hour-priced tapas, including Spanish Potato Salad ($1.50 during happy hour). Creamy yet not very flavorful, the salad featured tuna, potatoes, mayo, and not much else. We woke our bartender long enough to inquire about the ingredients and were given a brisk "I don't know. I think it's tuna and potatoes."
Our sleepy service could have resulted from our being branded happy-hour whores for ordering off the cheapskate menu. In spite of such disinterest and the fact that we were then treated to an employee discussion on the previous night's $20 bill shortage, something seemed alluring about the place. The mussels (also $1.50 during happy hour!) were fat, fresh, and juicy in their sherry and onion broth. House-baked bread, chewy and yeasty, seemed made for maximum juice-soakage, while a waiter looked on with friendly approbation. The space meets the rigorous color standards of New Seattle, right down to the plum and mustard interior. Gigantic frosted windows created a romantic haze in the room.
Visit number two smelled like an entirely different animal. We were greeted warmly and whisked to a beautiful booth that was covered with green velvet brocade. Nestled in a corner, we were served by a waiter who couldn't have been friendlier.
Marcha's large menu lists numerous categories of tapas, including soups, salads, tortillas (which in the gustatory vernacular of Spain resemble omelets), stuffed fare, and sandwiches. Most are priced between $5 and $10 and are served in relatively generous portions; two or three are plenty for one person. Paella ($22 a person, minimum two people, cooked to order) costars on the menu, which features three other entr饳.
From the tapas menu, the pimentos verdes ($5) won us over with its long, sleek presentation. A warm tomato sauce topped a perfectly cooked green pepper, stuffed with shredded salt cod. Endive salad ($6) accompanied the cod dish, with woody olive oil soaked into the crunchy leaves. The tender braised oxtail ($7) swam in a cocoa-colored, marrow-flavored sauce.
THE CHEESE PLATE ($11) sparked a conversation about the unfortunate industrialization of cheese in the United States. We pondered the dearth of notable American cheeses, wondering why such a huge country can't produce remarkable regional cheeses such as those found on our plate at Marcha. Sturdy and mild manchego, Galician tetilla, and smoky Idiazabal from the Basque region surrounded the main attraction: a dreamy, blue-cheesy Cabrales. These are cheeses worthy of nationalistic pride—just imagine conjuring up such arrogance over thoughts of Colby, American, and Monterey Jack. (See what we mean?)
After a grandfatherly waiter brought the paella, our good fortune did and yet did not continue. Grand to the eye and easy on the nostril, the traditional rice, meat, and seafood fiesta fell short of high expectations (piqued as they were by the preceding tapas). We wondered if the kitchen had run out of saffron and mourned the slightly overcooked rice, which was no match for the heady combination of chicken, squid, and prawns. We chose a spicy and smart Faustino XII, a 1997 rioja wine from the Cosecha region, priced at a modest $25, considering the traditional triple markup in most restaurants.
The unremarkable flan ($5), covered in caramel sauce, further dampened our tapas-fueled enthusiasm. Even so, we remained positive about this place. Having decent paella with friends on a cold night, served to you by a man from Spain who you wish was your grandpa, is an experience to savor. Still, one would be wise to stick with the tapas here, which serve as a salute to their venerable history.