When I studied abroad in Spain my sophomore year of college, I discovered one of my favorite cultures — and culinary traditions.
Spaniards are social people who like to (and know how to) have a good time. The tradition of tapas feeds into both aspects.
If you go
› Where: Paloma Bar de Tapas, 805 Chestnut St.
› Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday- Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday- Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
› Prices: $5-$7 for tapas; $25-$29 for entrees
› Alcohol: Full bar
› Phone: 423-498-3190
Tapas are small plates meant to be shared. Restaurants specializing in tapas turn dinner into an adventure of different dishes with each guest piloting a portion of the evening, a marriage of personal tastes, flavors and plenty of conversation starters.
I think dining should be an experience, so this year for my birthday dinner, Chattanooga's gift to me was a new tapas restaurant, Paloma, located in the West Village.
Paloma is intimately small, tucked off to the side of Alimentari, a full-scale restaurant offering full-size Italian meals. The first time I noticed the adjoining new bar-like area, I wondered how many times I had driven by without ever seeing it. Paloma, which is owned by the same people as Alimentari, opened in late February.
Paloma's interior is both rustic and refined. It looks as if it walked off the pages of Architectural Digest. Tufted banquettes share wooden tables with sleek cognac-leather chairs. Oversized, hammered-copper domes offer ambient lighting augmented by the natural light that filters to the back of the small space. At the front, two round tables are framed by streaming sunshine and sunny Mediterranean tile. Running along one side of the restaurant, the bar's white quartz countertop offers a crispness that is subdued by the richness and texture of more leather chairs, whose aerodynamic lines intersect with the large arched mirrors behind.
Before even picking out a drink, I had picked out several must-haves in home decor.
With space for only about three or four dozen diners between the banquettes and the bar, I had called ahead to see if they could accept a party of 10-15. They don't offer reservations, but said if we arrived before diners typically started filtering in around 7 p.m., they should be able to accommodate 10 or so.
With a traditional Spanish focus on meat, the menu offers pretty limited options for vegetarians — which I am not. The charcuterie components are fairly expected, but well priced. The rest of the menu maintains a surprisingly affordable price point, but is a departure from anything you've likely ever tried in Chattanooga.
There are tuna-stuffed piquillo peppers ($6), lamb meatballs with mint creme fraiche and pickled red onion ($7), smoked salmon mousse with cucumber, charred onion and capers ($6) and caramelized chorizo lollipops with romesco sauce standing in bread ($7). Even seemingly familiar dishes take on Spanish flair: a tortilla made of potatoes, egg and olive oil ($5) that's as thick as a quiche; and octopus with potato, romesco sauce and paprika ($7) served like it just came out of the sea.
For those with bigger appetites, there is also a small selection of full-size entrees: a 12-ounce, bone- in New York strip with potatoes and broccoli ($29), and Arctic salmon with sauteed spinach ($25).
With such a large group, I got to see nearly everything on the menu, though I didn't get to taste it all.
My boyfriend, Jon, and I ordered the potato tortilla, lamb meatballs, beef with red onion marmalade ($7), bread with tomato and olive oil ($3) and Mediterranean salad with burrata cheese, pistachio pesto and cherry tomato ($6).
The beef was tender and rich, sliced thin so you could savor the velvety texture. The marmalade was an unexpected twist that added a nice complement.
The bread was smeared with tomato rather than carrying a meaty slice, allowing each of the flavors to shine and showcasing the quality of the olive oil. Though simple, it was satisfying.
Simplicity — and flavor — reigned over the tortilla as well, with chunky salt crystals setting off the earthiness of the potatoes.
I'd order all of it again, but the standouts to me were the salad and meatballs.
The salad was actually more like a spread. Outfitted with crostinis, which we requested, we devoured the "salad," which had a surprising lightness given the ingredients. It was highly addictive. I'd go back for that alone so I wouldn't have to share.
The meatballs were sweet, without a hint of the gaminess I've tasted with other lamb dishes. And the mint creme fraiche had a fresh, sunny flavor without the acidity yogurt can end on. The meatballs were a bit of an experiment for me, something a little outside of my comfort zone, but I found myself upset when Jon swiped the last one without me noticing.
When it comes to tapas, another part of the adventure is the portion sizes. I've been to places where six plates was enough to feed six people, and places where just one or two people would have still left hungry and angry. All those small plates can add up.
Paloma sits squarely in the middle, the sweet spot in terms of shareable plates at stomachable prices. For about $50 between the two of us, before tip but with drinks, Jon and I left pleasantly full, but more importantly, satiated.
With such a small space, it appeared as if the servers and bartenders were interchangeable. The young man who approached our table to get us started with drinks had developed the featured cocktail of the evening, a subtly chocolate Manhattan meant for sipping, which he described in loving detail. He maneuvered between us and the bar, taking our food and drink orders and making drinks for other customers, but we didn't have to wait too long for anything.
The other servers who delivered our food were attentive and all pitched in to make sure everyone in the restaurant was taken care of. They were happy to share recommendations and explain, also in loving detail, the nuances of the dishes.
Paloma dovetails adventure and I dare say authenticity. (The owner is Argentinian, which is close enough for me.) The plates are simplistic in nature yet complex in flavor and feel worlds away from ordinary. It's definitely worth a visit.
Contact Jennifer Bardoner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6579.