Fremont's Hunger Pains

A spacial expansion suggests that tapas places should think small.

For girls growing up in the Midwest, a pilgrimage to Colleen Moore's dollhouse at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry is a rite of passage. Moore, a Hollywood star, commissioned 700 craftspeople to meticulously create the dollhouse she'd envisioned ever since she was 5 years old, when her father gave her a dictionary smaller than a gumdrop. The manse is furnished with itty-bitty piano scores handwritten by George Gershwin, a sliver of the True Cross that Pope Pius XII gave Moore's friend Clare Boothe Luce, and chairs backed with emerald and diamond earrings.

Yet what's really striking about the dollhouse is its size. Rebranded as the "Fairy Castle" sometime after its 1949 retirement from cross-country touring, the house is immense. Not one of the millions of visitors who've gaped and goggled at the structure has ever outgrown it: The tip of the house's tallest tower stands 12 feet from the floor, and its imaginary occupants are privy to an ample 64 square feet of living space.

Those dimensions may be conducive to dreams, but, frankly, they're downright lousy for a dollhouse. When a dollhouse is so big that an actual human can squeeze into its foyer, as Moore famously did, the romance is wrecked. Now you have to worry about dusting the mantelpieces, making sure nobody steals your china, and figuring out how you'll pull off a "Brother Johnny Goes to War" story line when you can barely reach the room that's supposed to be Johnny's bedroom. Some things are meant to stay small.

If Hunger's latest iteration is any indication, that rule applies fiercely to tapas bars as well. The Fremont restaurant this spring moved down the block to the expansive venue vacated by Dad Watson's, a migration which presumably allowed for the preening of artistic feathers that had gotten ruffled in Hunger's first, partially hidden location.

The new restaurant is more than twice the size of the old. Even if there were seated customers—and there weren't on the nights I visited—the room would look enormous. Square dancers who cleared away the tasteful slat-backed wooden chairs and votive-topped tables could easily manage a healthy Virginia reel here. To give some sense of the restaurant's proportions: When I dined there soon after the Fourth of July, the large outdoor grill slid under the drinking side of the bar was completely inconspicuous.

It's not just the room that's gotten bigger: Chef/owners (and husband and wife) Brian Brooks and Jaime Mullins-Brooks have stretched the menu, adding an array of seafood dishes. Each individual plate was enlarged, too, until the Brookses thought better of it and revised sizes and prices, so the $17 half-pound burger and fries recently became a $10 third-pounder with no fries. Customers schooled in the perks of tapas don't want to fuss with $21 steaks and $24 sea scallops.


Even without the entrées, though, it feels as though Hunger has overinflated its concept. Thoughtfulness is diluted by the sheer number of dishes, and the spacious setting is the enemy of the chatty, continental closeness that eating tapas is supposed to foster.

I'm using the word "tapas" because it's more practical than repeating the phrase "complementary dishes showcasing Mediterranean flavors, each of which constitutes about 20 percent of a full meal," but I don't want to give the impression that the Brookses are Spanish loyalists. The menu includes a fried pork belly finished with a piri-piri glaze that's a possible shout-out to Portugal, and the ketchup's spiked with harissa. What's not included are a number of dishes that would be classified as compulsory in the tapas Olympics, such as boquerones (or any other oily fish) and tortilla espanola.

The wine selection is similarly unorthodox. More than half of the wines sold by the glass come from Spain, but no sherries are listed. If there were sherries, though, I might worry for their welfare, since Hunger's bar is unfortunately sloppy in its wine handling: On both my visits, I was poured wine so overly oxidized that I had to send it back. Red wines were also served far too cold.

One of the problems with tapas is how many chances it gives a kitchen to screw up. A diner might forgive a clunker entrée, taking responsibility for an ordering mistake, but it's hard to be so magnanimous when a table is mined with duds. There are many at Hunger, including an unsuspecting arugula salad with a ringlet of shockingly tough octopus plopped down from above like a chunk of drywall. Gummy calamari, scribbled with saffron aioli, are bathed in a tomato sauce so cold that the ostensible flavor contributions of chili flakes and cilantro are iced over. A scoop of tuna ceviche in the shade of a wheatgrass smoothie is a creamy debacle.

Away from the seafood section, the flaws are less damning. (If you must order something that swims, the best bet's a quartet of bruschetta painted with a peppery tapenade and crowned with prawns marinated in chermoula, a North African mix of garlic, lemon, and parsley.) The braised boar served slider-style is slightly dry, but a smear of chèvre helps. And if the top of a paella had the distinct crunch of undercooking, it didn't mean the clams and mussels were any less meaty. While I didn't get the appeal of chorizo-stuffed dates swaddled in bacon and dripping with a sweet balsamic glaze, my tablemates fought for them. They'd surely make a better dessert than the chocolate cake, which tasted like a microwaveable molten cake that had failed to disgorge.

The best dishes at Hunger are the simplest. I liked the zesty saffron tomato sauce that was baked with egg and manchego for a classic tomatada, and a housemade pasta with zucchini, roasted tomatoes, and chorizo was a perfectly lovely summer plate. If I knew the wine issues had been sorted out, I'd probably return to Hunger to sit on the streetside patio and order a rotating dip platter that, the night I tried it, featured a tangy aioli, paunchy marinated olives, halibut ceviche in cilantro oil, and grilled squash. But Hunger has its sights on bigger things.

Small plates have been a dominant force in American dining since the mid-1980s, when "grazing" or "modular" plates were introduced in response to the decade's twin foibles of vanity and greed. Eaters who wanted everything but calories made meals from appetizers until chefs got wise and adopted the Spanish style of plating. It's understandable that, 30 years on, tapas producers would be tempted to toy with growth, but Hunger's fizzle suggests they risk wiping out quality and intimacy in the process.

Price guide

Tuna ceviche $14

Octopus $15

Boar sliders $10

Paella $20

Pasta $13.50

Tomatada $7

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