How Do You Take Your Tapas?

Cheap and Americanized with an authentic vibe, or pretty and pricey with a dollhouse fork? Either way works at two great new bars.

Two dinners, 20 small plates, and a half-dozen used toothpicks have passed through my hands, and I'm still impressed with how much Ocho feels like a tapas bar should. True, there's no cigarette haze and no hams hanging from the ceiling. Absolutely no Spanish emerges from the loud buzzing of the crowd, if you don't count the mangled attempts to pronounce words like almejas and alcachofas. And, yes, there's a dearth of mayonnaise on the plates, the chalkboard menu lists a heretically American beet salad with truffle oil, and the bartender's house special is a $10 margarita in a 0.1-blood-level pint glass. But that vibe—it reminds me of Portland as much as Madrid, emitted by people squished together at too-tiny tables or clustered, shoulders overlapping, around the L of the bar. Eating there is like being at a crowded house party when it's late enough in the evening to chat up strangers but several drinks before the party's designated loser pukes up in the kitchen sink.And this in a former hot dog stand—a glass-walled box on the corner of Market and 24th in Ballard, last occupied by Matt's Gourmet Hot Dogs. Owners Gelsey Hanson and Zach Harjo tricked out the place in a blend of off-kilter '50s deco (stonework walls, hanging globe lights), DIY pub (dark wood banquettes, TV-tray-sized tables), and baroque (brass-colored embossed wallpaper, mirrors in ornate gold frames). The windows let in enough light from the street lamps outside to keep the small space from closing in. There are seats for 32 people, standing room for another dozen. Count on a wait.Hanson says that she and boyfriend Harjo, who have worked in restaurants all over Ballard, got the inspiration for Ocho a few years ago, when they ate their way around Spain for a summer. Harjo came up with the initial recipes and the drinks, Hanson runs the front of house, and the couple brought on Colby Chambers to take over kitchen duties. They've got a full bar with a handful of microbrews on tap and a solid list of Spanish wines by the glass. One warning: The margarita isn't the only potent house drink. Harjo's pint glass of sangria—red wine mixed with sherry, brandy, and some fruit—could also cause a Venus Velázquez incident.A run down the chalkboard shows that little costs more than $6. The tapas range from classics like fat, garlicky shrimp and patatas bravas—deep-fried cubes of potato served with mayonnaise and hot sauce—to innovations like toasts spread with melted dark chocolate, salt, cinnamon, and truffle oil. Guess which ingredient goes too far. Ocho's fabada is a pleasant, very American (read: vegetarian) bean stew with kale and portobellos instead of the traditional meat-and-bean fest with saffron, pork leg, and blood sausage. If you're going to get the deep-fried artichoke hearts, order them as banderillas de boqueron, speared on a toothpick with pickled anchovies and slices of roasted red peppers. The "La Carolina"—dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in pancetta—are too sweet for their own good; the clams, steamed in a simple broth with nutty toasted garlic, are too good to pass over.I don't think anyone going to Ocho to fulfill their visions of authentic Spanish food is going to walk out satisfied. But few will walk out disappointed, either. Small-plates dining as practiced by most of Seattle's forward-thinking bistros may have originated in the great tapas craze of the mid-1990s, but Hanson and Harjo aren't serving small plates. They serve tapas, keeping in mind that the dishes are meant to accompany booze and talk. A meal at Ocho progresses in impulses—hey, want another round? Need one more mushroom toast?—and, once you find yourself stuffed, finishes pleasantly free of sticker shock.Diverging from tradition in a different way, late last year Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez and wife Carolin Messier de Jiménez, owners of the 10-year-old Harvest Vine in Madison Park, opened Txori Bar in Belltown. Rather than being Harvest Vine II, Txori (CHOR-ee) specializes in Basque wines, cocktails with saffron or olive oil, and pintxos (PEEN-chos—just so you catch on to the tx pronunciation)—architectural constructions built on a slice of bread or boiled potato and then stabilized by a toothpick.In the everyday pintxos bars of Basque country, buffets are stocked with huge platters of the canapés stacked into porcupine pyramids. Diners throw down glasses of beer, cider, or the fizzy, bone-dry Basque white called txacoli, and graze as they drink, saving up their toothpicks to be counted, on the honor system, at the end of the meal.Whereas Ocho re-creates the working stiff's tapas spots, Txori takes after the highest-end pintxos bars that, informed by Spain's culinary revolutionaries, treat each piece of bread as if it were a 2-by-2-inch canvas. Here you pick your pintxos off a menu. The snacks are cooked to order and presented on small white plates, accompanied by dollhouse forks. If your group hasn't ordered doubles or triples of each, you may find yourself playing the role of microbiologist, divvying up two-bite snacks into pieces the eye can barely see.But really, what things they are: some as simple as a wedge of tortilla on a bread slice, an egg-potato-onion omelet drizzled in a loose, garlicky alli-olli, or the arrangement of pungent anchovies, salty olives, and sweet roasted peppers. Some are more ornate, such as a Chinese soup spoon containing a nest of lettuce, a few shreds of duck confit, and an orange segment, or a potato topped with a pepper-dusted octopus segment as tender as a marshmallow and olive oil so good you'll be asking for extra bread to sop it up. The one item that thrills me still is a piece of bread topped with a few thin slices of paprika-cured chorizo showered in shavings of dark chocolate, its bitter sweetness as invigorating as a dose of cayenne.In recent months, the Jiménezes have added more raciones, or larger plates, such as hake braised in cream or spinach and chickpeas. But to go to Txori for a full dinner is to miss the point. I found that out the night two friends and I shared a few drinks, ordered eight tiny things, and spent $90. Still famished but terrified of how much it would cost to eat our fill, we paid up, walked up to Capitol Hill, and gorged ourselves on pizza. The Web site bills Txori as a "neighborhood bar," and it's a great one—I've since come to love stopping in for a few pintxos to accompany a glass of beer. If you're aching with nostalgia for the authentic pintxos bars of San Sebastian, order Txori's kalimotxo. Half red wine, half Coke, it's a drink only a true Spaniard could enjoy.

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