Spain comes to Downtown Milwaukee on small plates
Turning tables is an important element of many restaurants' business models. Move the orders out of the kitchen fast. Send the customers quickly on their way.
Don't expect that at the newly opened Espana Tapas House on the corner of Plankinton and Wells.
"I want you to sit down and enjoy yourself. I'm not trying to rush you out of here," owner Joey Elbiadi says. "That is how you eat tapas.
"We have a beautiful atmosphere here. Enjoy it. We have linens, candles, fresh flowers on the tables. Take your time."
Elbiadi has given the space that previously housed Butch's Clock Steak House, Aladdin Middle Eastern Cuisine and other eateries an attractive refurbishing. While the basic interior layout remains essentially the same, track lighting was installed after dropped ceilings were removed, the floors are now tiled, and textured walls painted in vivid warm colors suggest sunny Spain. Yellows, reds and oranges coordinate with cloth napkins.
New murals depict a bull fighter, flamenco dancer and other items evocative of the culture.
Espana Tapas House takes the first word in its name very seriously. Its long wine list is exclusively Spanish and includes cava, the Spanish version of champagne. Individual glasses of wine and cava range in price from $5 to $11.
Four different varieties of sangria ($6) include a dry and tart selection that is brandy based. A non-alcoholic version is also available.
In the kitchen, the classic Spanish rice dish, paella, is prepared four different ways, including vegetarian ($12) and with pork tenderloin, chicken and chorizo ($14). Serrano ham, sausage, saffron, cheese, olives and almonds are imported from Espana.
For atmosphere, a flamenco guitarist plays on Wednesday and Friday nights, and flamenco dancers occasionally perform on a tiny stage.
But tapas are the main attraction here, and the restaurant offers 11 cold and 14 hot dishes priced from $3 (piquillo pepper-filled deviled eggs) to $12 (grilled sea scallops with citrus saffron sauce; cured Serrano ham and Spanish chorizo with fresh fruit; a trio of Spanish cheeses with almonds and quince paste). Elbiadi says patatas bravas ($4), crispy russet potatoes served with a spicy smoked tomato sauce, has been the best seller since his establishment opened.
Other popular tapas include mushrooms sauteed with white wine, garlic and Spanish olive oil (($7), Spanish olives stuffed with anchovies and finished with sherry vinaigrette ($6), and steamed mussels in a garlic sherry cream sauce ($9).
Espana Tapas House also offers bite-sized tapas it calls "pinchos," a term for snacks in Spain. A single fried chicken wing with orange sherry glaze and pickled onion salad is 75 cents.
Spicy marinated pork loin is $2. A buck will buy you tomato sauce and Manchego cheese melted on a crostini.
"Tapas have always been my favorite way to eat," says Elbiadi, who was born in Morocco and raised in France. "In Morocco, everybody shares. You set the plate in the middle of the table, and the family eats from it."
However, some of us prefer large servings all for ourselves. Espana has half a dozen standard-sized entrees, including sauteed salmon served with saffron-infused rice, avocado, spinach and salsa verde ($17), sauteed shrimp with avocado-asparagus rice and Valencia orange almond sauce ($16.50), and a grilled strip steak with sherry mushroom sauce, paprika mashed potatoes and crispy smoked onion ($24).
Side and entree salads are also available.
Elbiadi worked in restaurants in France and Italy before emigrating to the U.S. Dining industry jobs in Los Angeles and Chicago preceded his move to Milwaukee in 1989. His wife hails from here.
Fourteen years ago Elbiadi opened Taste of Italy on the edge of Waukesha. "I would have done a tapas restaurant then, but the concept wasn't as well-known as it is now," he says.
The gestation period for Espana Tapas House was longer than expected. Original plans called for the restaurant to open last fall, but the departure of a partner and a health department directive to reconstruct a sloping kitchen floor delayed its debut, according to Elbiadi.
Watch the Espana Tapas House website for information about flamenco dancer appearances. The restaurant opens at 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and offers a late night menu to midnight on weekdays and 2:30 a.m. weekends.
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