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Venue Review: Bacalao Tapas & Seafood Grille

A taste of Espana at Bacalao
Bacalao Tapas & Seafood Grille
By "Charles Passy/The Palm Beach Post"

In the last several years, Spain has become the darling of the food world.

First, the Iberian country gave us the tapas - or small plates - trend, the idea that an enjoyable meal can be built on a few small dishes instead of a single big one. More recently, it has become known for the gastronomic daring of Ferran Adria, the chef who pioneered the concept of molecular cuisine, where food and science come together.

And yet, all during this time not a single noteworthy Spanish restaurant has opened in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Until now.

That restaurant is Bacalao Tapas and Seafood Grille, a cool, contemporary slip of an eatery in Wellington. There's a lot this place has going for it. A curious, knowledgeable chef, Carlos Ortiz, who's spent time in places ranging from New York to Puerto Rico. A teal-colored, oceanic-inspired design that's a good fit for South Florida. A wine list that offers some of the best from Spain and South America, keeping with the restaurant's Hispanic orientation. (They make a mean sangria, too.)

All that can add up to a very enjoyable dining experience, provided you can look past the occasional misstep. But Bacalao is off to a promising start.

And it offers some promising starters. While Bacalao all but ignores the whole molecular cuisine trend, it celebrates tapas in all their savory glory. There are about a dozen selections to try, all priced under $10.

For a little Spanish cuisine 101, make sure to sample the traditional Spanish omelet, stuffed with thin slices of potatoes and served properly at room temperature. It's more an egg "wedge" than an omelet, almost designed to be eaten with your hands in the best spirit of bar food (and that's what tapas in Spain truly are.) Or go for the chorizo, the tasty (and spicy) Spanish sausage, which is nicely sautéed here with veggies.

Oh, and don't forget about the bacalao - that's the Spanish term for dried salted cod. The Mediterranean staple finds its way into two tapas dishes, a croquette and a seafood patty. Both are great finger foods.

Switching to entrees, you can also have cod for the main part of your meal. Like all the seafood dishes here (priced at 13.95 to 18.95), it comes with your choice of sauces. And though fish rarely works with anything cheesy, the cod partners perfectly with a zesty Cabrales cheese sauce.

No doubt that's because cod is so mild and Cabrales, a bleu cheese, so flavorful. But what's interesting about the array of fish and sauce choices at Bacalao is that all go together so smartly. A serving of monkfish - the poor man's lobster, as it's called - tastes even more delicious with a garlic cream sauce, for example.

Otherwise, Bacalao's menu veers in a continental direction - think steaks and pasta - than a Spanish one. It's arguably the price of doing business in an area where diners may not be as willing to try a cuisine that's unfamiliar to them. But at least there's a good paella ($17.95) on the menu: The traditional Spanish rice dish is done with squid ink, giving it an intriguing black color, and comes with a fine assortment of fish, including delectable baby octopus.

It's just a shame the dish isn't presented in the more authentic manner with the actual pan or pot in which it was cooked (the best part is scraping up those crispy bits of rice at the bottom).

Indeed, Bacalao's problem may be that it often hedges its bets when it comes to authenticity (where's that famed Spanish port on the wine list?) at the same time as it tries to appeal to the broader market.

The dessert list, for example, has little that's particularly Spanish-y (though the restaurant does an amazing job with a cheesecake with a burnt crust, much like a crème brulee or a Spanish crema catalana). Such may be the price of doing business in Palm Beach County, but if that's the case, the restaurant should consider hosting, say, the occasional Spanish wine dinner or other special event where it can be as true to the cuisine as possible.

It also wouldn't hurt if there was more consistency to the service. On our first visit, just about everything that could go wrong did, beginning with the fact that the entrees came out before the tapas appetizers and the staff refused to thoroughly own up to the mistake.

On a second visit, a more polished server paced the meal just right. But even then, we were surprised that on both visits, a manager never made a point of visiting our table. That's the kind of gesture that goes a long way, especially in a new restaurant that's trying to ingratiate itself with the community.

One hopes that Bacalao will eventually make that gesture. Otherwise, patrons might not see it as the valuable and worthy addition to the local dining scene it truly is.

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2/6/2009 - pbpulse - Charles Passy/The Palm Beach Post

In the last several years, Spain has become the darling of the food world. First, the Iberian country gave us the tapas - or small plates - trend, the idea that an enjoyable meal can be built on a few small dishes instead of a single big one.

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