Ocho Libre!

Pretty tapas in an environment where you can lose yourself--and your hearing.

Ocho is not a dim or shady bar. It's just plain dark—candlelit and shadowed, rich with velvet blackness and gilt filigree—and coming through the door at 11 p.m. on a weekend is like walking straight into a wall of noise. The music is loud, coming from a stereo behind the bar tuned to a pure Nick Hornby station. I don't recognize a single song, but I like every one of them.Because of the music, the people are loud too, having to shout over the droning sad-bastard keyboards and thrumming bass; to lean close and bellow across tables no bigger than two chess boards pushed together. When they laugh, they bray in a forced timbre, a crossing vector of strong drink and honest joy.The plates are loud. The silver is loud. The walls, when everything hits the right frantic frequency, seem to reverberate with sound like a nightclub's—bouncing drum fills and moaning singers, voices, shouts, scraping flatware, everything. And in moments of strangely synchronized quiet—in the gap between one song and another, the space of a breath between outbursts—all that noise seems to live in the walls, just waiting to spill forth.And I loved it. It was perfect. Loud was what I'd wanted—crowded, anonymous, somewhere to bury myself for an hour or two and not have to think. It'd been a rough day—busy at the office, miserable at home. I was longing for the comforting familiarity of my last half-dozen addresses, feeling the diffuse, drifty homesickness of the perennially misplaced, and felt a powerful need to cosh that spirit of melancholy before it bloomed into something too ugly and purple. The best way to do that is in a crowd, with a few drinks and some snacks, in a place where it is too busy, close, and thunderous to form coherent thoughts. A punk bar would've been ideal; a monster-truck rally, too. Ocho was the next best thing.Inside the door, the bar is full, running two deep at the short end with suits and swells and night creatures sucking down cold beers and cocktails. The house special is a margarita, served in a pint glass, that's like swallowing an alcoholic time-bomb, but most reasonable folks seem to be satisfied with beers off the bar, tumblers of wine from the Spanish-heavy list, martini-glass cocktails in bright primary colors.All the way down at the service end, I catch the eye of the single waitress working the floor in blue jeans and harness boots, and she nods me in the direction of an open table against the wall. Bodies are pressing in behind me already, muscling in out of the rain on Market Street, pushing their way out of the damp streetlight brightness and into the warm, close dark, so I take the seat in a hurry, jinking through the narrow alley between the bar and the banquette, then slump against the paneled back of the only seat available.When the waitress comes, she has to lean in close to be heard. "How are you tonight?" she asks."Wet!" I shout back. "Thirsty!""Do you know what you want?""Estrella," I yell back—my favorite Spanish lager, which tastes like drinking dusty sunshine. "And some food."For two solid years, Ocho has been a draw on this Ballard street corner, a tapas restaurant that lays no particular claim to any sort of "like dining on the streets of Madrid!" authenticity, but still manages to capture the feel of a proper, if très moderne, American vision of a cool Spanish bar.Owner Zach Harjo envisioned the place after a summer spent eating his way through Spain, but he was already a restaurant veteran (most notably of La Carta de Oaxaca, just around the corner) with plenty of years behind him and understood, on some gut level, the danger of attempted transplantation. The chance of a "truly authentic" anything succeeding outside the place where its borrowed authenticity was born is slim. The odds of it becoming a Disney-fied theme park or a twee, cutesy recreation on par with those doilied repositories of kitsch that serve high tea and finger sandwiches to little girls in princess dresses are just too large.Thus, Ocho gambled on notes of authenticity in an otherwise safety-netted environment. Its brick walls, dark wood, framed mirrors, and jewel-box size invoke visions of late-night carousing on Avenida Sant Domènec in Barcelona without all the pickpockets, tourists, and random outbursts of flamenco dancing, while the menu only skirts the edges of serious Spanish bar snacks (no chopitos, no bacalao or cut bits of octopus gleaming with oil), arranging them beautifully on white plates, taking care to make each one seem a doll's version of an entire meal.My Estrella arrives along with another wave of customers, pushing against the bodies already there, adding to the noise level and the damp, steamy closeness that pervades Ocho—cozy but not claustrophobic, thanks mostly to the windows that line the front wall. I run a finger down the menu and, in the space between blaring anthems from the bar, civilly ask for patatas bravas, aceitunas (mixed olives, served in the same glass tumbler the wines come in, speared with a long toothpick) and jamon Serrano—an ideal start. This time the waitress says nothing. Like a fighter plane breaking off an engagement, she wheels away and disengages the minutes the words are out of my mouth. Busy already, she's about to get busier.Waiting for my first course, I look over the crowds—the suits and the scenesters; the bald man with the beard with the girl half on his lap; two guys positioned about midway down the rail, one of them rail-thin and tall, long-haired, wearing a hipster's trilby, the other a big fella with a scruffy goatee and a trench coat. They're huddled as if conferring over secret plans or desperately in love.I wave for a second Estrella before my first plates arrive. Behind the bar, the tender works his shaker violently—a flash of chrome and a sound like a train passing at terrible velocity. Next to me, three pretty girls have a shouted conversation about absent pretty boys, and I close my eyes for just a minute and sink into the riot of noise.At midnight, someone does something terrible in the bathroom and I am forced to abandon my table and make for a stool at the bar. What I leave behind is the wreckage of a first course on a table that looks as if it were attacked by a shark—covered with spattered plates and splintered toothpicks.The jamon Serrano came in a sunburst of meat and vanished into my mouth almost before it was set down. Like everything at Ocho, it was cheap, pretty, and architecturally designed. Unlike so many plates of Serrano, this one was actually cut well—thin as paper, bleeding oil from the fat sweating in the heat. The olives were merely olives: mostly good, though one of the varieties tasted soapy. I ate them all anyway.The patatas bravas were the only disappointment. Done in Catalonian style—rubbed with red pepper and paprika before frying—they were served with a smoky-hot brava sauce (made with more red pepper, more paprika) and a simple, delicious artichoke aioli. And though it's tough to complain about a four-dollar plate of fried potatoes, these were mealy on the inside and burnt along the edges, the spices taking on an unappetizing taste of char. They weren't terrible, just not great; and the few I left on the plate lay like tiny, dead porcupines—limp and stuck with a dozen toothpicks.My second course chases me to my new seat, the waitress leaning between me and the bearded guy playing sucky-face with his girl, feeding each other bites of sea scallop and English pea puree. On my other side, Fat and Skinny are chatting with the bartender between drink orders, mocking the knot of suit-and-tie Don Draper clones who just walked in—standing in the doorway with confused looks on their faces as if searching for secretaries to slap and classic gin martinis that will never arrive.For a moment, I am distracted by croquetas borrachas ("drunk dumplings," more or less)—balls of breaded and fried goat cheese, studded with shreds of jamon Serrano and dressed in a sauce of roasted pepper—which hit the table so hot that they're like eating lava rolled in bread crumbs; then two bites of dates, wrapped in pancetta, stuffed with goat cheese, speared on yet still more toothpicks, and drizzled with a sweet, thick balsamic reduction. The croquetas are pure guilty-pleasure good, and I am sad the moment I eat the last one because I immediately want six or seven more orders, all lined up before me like shooters of hot cheese and grease. The dates are overpowering, sweet and savory at once, funked up by the powerful bite of blue cheese. Pushing away what remains of them, I think how they might've been better as a first course rather than served here, among dinner's horse latitudes.Pushing away the plate, I am already reaching for the menu again.Another round of Estrella, another round of plates. The crowds keep coming, even into the a.m. hours, and neither the bar nor the tiny closet of a galley at Ocho will close until last call. I eat albondigas that convince me real talent is at work on the line—the beautiful little lamb meatballs perfectly tender, nicely seared, and veiled in a carrot and brandy pan sauce, studded with raisins and finished with a sweet touch of almond.Meanwhile, the bearded guy and his lady friend are hard at work devouring each other, mouth first. Skinny and I argue about hats—me feeling loose enough now to go off on a loud sartorial jag, lifting a line from P.J. O'Rourke and insisting that, for style's sake, all men should remove their hats when going indoors—then keep them off forever because nothing looks so ridiculous as a man in a suit and hat, except a man in a hat and nothing else.I check my watch. It's around 1. The kitchen is sold out of the pescado for the night. I order white Spanish anchovies instead. The waitress delivers them, and I can no longer recall how many times she has come by now—more than five, less than a hundred.Skinny sits, leaning over his pint glass and staring at the surface of the bar like it was a television set. Fat is deep in conversation with a girl on his other side. I eat the anchovies myself, and a slice of the cook's casserole-like tortilla Espanola, which comes off as almost too light for what ought to be a hearty peasant dish—an airy mix of whipped eggs and potatoes and onions, baked and sliced to serve, that leaves me feeling hungrier after eating it than I did before. I am more accustomed to the omelet version of this dish, served on a piece of oiled, grilled bread, but that's not how this kitchen's new chef, Tara Ayers, rolls.The bar gets crowded again, the tables turning over quickly as groups of people meet, migrate, and shift from eating to drinking and back again. Finally I've had enough, and decide to give up my space to other needy night owls. I say my good-byes and no one seems to notice. When I pay my bill, I get a final, tired smile from the waitress.Outside, I turn up my collar and step out into the weather and sudden calm. The first thought that goes through my head is how much I liked Ocho, how much I'm looking forward to getting back for more croquetas, albondigas, and cold, sweating bottles of Estrella.The second is that, with all this rain, I should really think about getting myself a nice hat.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

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