Leave it to Americans to make foreign foods the victims of our gluttony. Ever had a slice of pizza in Italy? In its natural habitat, it looks and tastes nothing like the greasy, flat, big-as-your-plate, cheese-blanketed versions found under heat lamps at the mall. The same goes for what we call a Spanish omelet. In Spain, no such creature exists. Instead, tortilla española -- an egg, onion, and potato dish cut into wedges -- is served cold as an afternoon snack or late-day meal accompaniment. Not for breakfast, mind you. So when it comes to tapas, those small, appetizer-sized plates offering a few little bites, is it any surprise that we order dozens, making what should be a small taste or two into a full-blown meal?
Tapas originated in Spain, where hungry farm workers were entitled to a little snack during work hours so they could continue toiling until the main meal. Wine was also served, providing much-needed warmth in the cold winter months. "La tapa" means "solid food that covers the wineglass," because Spaniards would put either a slice of smoked ham or cheese on top to prevent insects from falling in. (Guess they weren't fans of that nice crunch only a half-eaten roach can provide.)
Here in Florida (a.k.a. "Land of the Cockroach"), tapas is not an entirely new notion, since many of us have visited a Café Tu-Tu Tango in Orlando or Coconut Grove and are familiar with this type of food and the "Spanish" atmosphere. At Tu-Tu Tangos, flamenco dancers work the room and local artists paint and hawk their wares while diners choose from dozens of tapas selections. Once the food starts arriving, hungry folks pass fiesta-ware around like they're poker dealers. The whole spectacle is probably what should be expected when a Florida-based company gets hold of a foreign food concept and peddles it to tourists.
Mano a Mano, on the other hand (excuse the pun), offers 15 tapas selections, and on a regular weeknight, the sole entertainment is watching the crowd stroll Delray's main drag.
The first Mano opened about four years ago in Holland, and the name has become an established presence internationally. Today, more than a dozen restaurants exist elsewhere (there are a few in Holland, one in Spain, and one in St. Thomas, for example), but the one that began serving six months ago on swingin' Atlantic Avenue is the first American link in the chain.
Of the three men who own our local Mano, one is half-Dutch and lives in Spain. The other is half-Spanish and lives in Holland, and the working partner is Miamian Carlos Omes. And even though on weeknights, the place is pretty empty, the owners don't seem to want the restaurant to evolve into theater. They are more interested in gaining an upscale clientele, as is evidenced by the attractive architecture. The space is divided into three sections: outside seating, an indoor main room, and a party spot in the back. Small tile mosaics on the walls and glass lamps over the bar add interest, and a divider wall broken into arches offers a tease to the party room and kitchen. According to Omes, the décor was inspired by Gaudi.
Outside, the tables are wobbly and sometimes off-kilter thanks to the sloping sidewalk, but these spots are still premium on weekends, as al fresco dining allows singletons to scope for nuevos amores waiting in line at the neighboring Delux nightclub.
Arrive during weekend prime time and you're probably going to have to sit inside and away from the eye candy. But you will not be entirely out of the game. The booth seating is arranged so that all diners face the bar, and the restrooms are in the back. Lastly, if you are a semi-attractive woman, the mostly male staff will surely acknowledge you. (One of my two girlfriends was asked for her digits, and the other was given the phone number of a cook. Plus, our waiter not only offered yours truly a massage but also asked about my "dating situation.")
If you become thirsty from wading through all the flying pheromones, try ordering some wine. For Spaniards, wine and tapas go together like Pamela Lee and her underwires. I tried some Sangria, which did nothing for me ($25 a pitcher). Per the instructions on the menu, we had to ask the manager what was available from the "reserve" wine menu, which is so top secret that it isn't even in print. The few bottles he offered weren't terribly impressive.
But I digress. Let's get to the tapas. On my first visit, the girls and I shared four plates, each costing $6. The first plate consisted of albondigas, small meatballs covered in a Mediterranean tomato sauce. The meatballs, though ordinary, were flavorful and served hot. Chicken satay was next, served with a spicy and sweet soy sauce. Again, this dish was palatable but uneventful.
My first choice was the traditional Spanish pie (note the word Spanish) served in a puff pastry with chorizo, and the second was a sampling of baked dates wrapped in smoked bacon. The pie was tasty but not appropriate to share. Anything in puff pasty is a challenge to divide, and I was disappointed that the chorizo (red, oily sausages) was laid on top instead of chopped up inside. The dates were voted our favorites, though the shooting pain we simultaneously experienced when unexpectedly chomping down on a pit was about as pleasurable as a barium enema.
I also sampled the pan-fried txistorra (Spanish-style sausage), which tasted similar to the chorizo, though we guessed that was instead a linguiça (Portuguese pork sausage with a garlic flavor). We then had the calamari fritos served with what the menu promised would be "hot arrabiata" sauce. The sauce was neither spicy nor steaming, so the word hot led us astray, but it was tasty nonetheless. However, the calamari was sadly undercooked and a bit rubbery. Our last plate, the only one costing more than $6, was the restaurant's most popular dish: gambas al ajillo, ($7.50) -- searing, buttery, small garlic shrimp. The garlic, thankfully, was not overpowering, but this plate sadly lacked zing.
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We ordered an entrée and a house special to get more perspective. Other than tapas, Mano wants to be known for its steak selections, which range from Argentinean skirt steak with chimichurri sauce ($17.50) to a sirloin rubbed with garlic butter ($19.50). We tried a grilled tenderloin steak ($19.50) and were pleased with our choice. Though the accompanying vegetables were slightly undercooked, the meat was perfectly prepared, and its side of horseradish cream sauce was delicate yet possessed a kick. Home-fried potatoes were a nice addition.
We also ordered the house special seafood paella ($23.50) because frankly, if a Spanish-style restaurant can't make decent paella, the place won't be in business long. Luckily for Mano, its paella was tasty. The yellow rice was prepared just so, leaving behind the right amount of tangerine-colored oil in a small puddle on the plate. Green parsley sprigs and red pepper squares provided festive color, while the beige clamshells, black mussels, and pink shrimp added substance. Truly, this plate would've been a ten, except for one slight problem: the effort involved in eating it. It displeased me to have to pry open some of the mussel and clam shells, and the remaining shrimp shells added another level of frustration.
After the labor-intensive entrée, we were eager to partake in the most effortless part of the meal -- dessert. However, we were disappointed to find that selections were scarce and not unique, offering no more than cheesecake, crema Catalana (crème brûlée) and chocolate mousse ($5.50 each). We bypassed the cheesecake and instead ordered the other two options half-heartedly. The rich mousse, a decent way to end the meal, was served in a martini glass, bathing in Kahlua and topped with whipped cream. However, the crèma, which looked promising upon presentation, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. Its torched top layer was burnt, leaving a bitter aftertaste, and the soft, sweet treasure hiding inside was an overcooked -- and therefore curdled -- disaster.
In the end, we would've instead appreciated a basket of churros, but I understand that Spaniards mostly eat those for breakfast. I guess a foot-long dealie stuffed with dulce de leche sitting atop a mound of chocolate ice cream with sprinkles is definitely out of the question. But I swear, if they sliced it up, I would've shared it. After all, oinking out with your friends is truly what tapas-eating in America is all about, right?