Cafe Pintxos: The Case of the Transient Tapas

Caprese Pintxos - grape tomatoes, fresh basil, balsamic reduction and house made fresh mozzarella. Check out  more photos of Cafe Pintxos by Jennifer Silverberg.
Caprese Pintxos - grape tomatoes, fresh basil, balsamic reduction and house made fresh mozzarella. Check out more photos of Cafe Pintxos by Jennifer Silverberg.

Cafe Pintxos: The Case of the Transient Tapas

3407 Olive Street; 314-338-2500.
Hours: Breakfast 7-11 a.m. daily. Dinner 4-11 p.m. daily.

Café Pintxos
Ajo asado...$8
Ensalada de pulpo...$12

The Basque term pintxos is roughly synonymous with tapas, and if you think of Café Pintxos as a tapas bar, you might be able to make sense of the restaurant inside the new Hotel Ignacio in midtown. Not that it looks or feels anything like a Spanish tapas bar, but unlike so many restaurants that have appropriated the term "tapas," conflating it with "small," Café Pintxos does serve Spanish cuisine.

It might also help to think of Café Pintxos as a tapas bar, not a tapas restaurant. For one thing, it doesn't have its own kitchen; it shares one with the adjacent restaurant, Triumph Grill. (The Lawrence Group owns both restaurants, as well as a third Grand Center eatery, Kota Wood Fire Grill.) More to the point, while Café Pintxos might not resemble a true tapas bar, it is exactly what you would expect from the bar inside a boutique hotel, sleek and spare, with white walls and dark-wood furniture, soft lighting and vaguely porny music. Splashes of color are few but welcome: multicolored tiles on a support column, a wonderfully odd painting of soldiers on horseback traversing a surreal landscape.

Yet even calling Café Pintxos a bar is inaccurate. There are shelves with bottles of liquor on them, yes, but there are no seats at the counter in front of them. (The wine list is modest, featuring Spanish and Latin American varieties; only two beers are available.) Instead the bar doubles as a kind of kitchen pass. Here the hot tapas, prepped earlier in Triumph Grill's kitchen, are kept at temperature on a steam table, and the bartender (who — on my visits, at least — also served as host and waiter) plates hot and cold dishes to order.

(There is also a limited, non-Spanish breakfast menu.)

This setup is unusual, but it is not the most unusual aspect of Café Pintxos.

Pintxos are sometimes described as "Basque-style tapas," but the term literally means "spiked" and refers specifically to bite-size dishes skewered with a toothpick to a piece of bread. Café Pintxos' logo is an olive spiked in such a way, and the menu features a category of pintxos, described as "artfully marinated" meat, seafood and vegetable kebabs that are grilled and served with your choice of two from a selection of a dozen dipping sauces.

I would like to describe the pintxos in more detail — those sauces are especially intriguing, the jalapeño ponzu and the yuzu soy in particular — but menu heading be damned, Café Pintxos doesn't always offer pintxos. The menu states that the pintxos are "seasonal" and cooked on the "patio grill." You might think that now would be the "season" for outdoor grilling, and you might toddle off to Café Pintxos with visions of pintxos flamenco-dancing in your head. I wouldn't blame you one bit for that line of reasoning because it's precisely the one I followed right through the doors of the Hotel Ignacio. Sad to say, the day I chose to procure a plate of pintxos was a Tuesday, and it turns out Café Pintxos doesn't serve pintxos on Tuesday. Nor on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday.

Which leaves...the weekend! You don't get to be the RFT's restaurant critic if you're the sort who gives up easily, so I returned on a weekend — and was informed pintxos weren't available that weekend.

This latest news, I must confess, chipped just the tiniest shard off my armor of optimism. Looking deep within myself, I discovered that my hunger for pintxos was waning.

But a job's a job. I called Café Pintxos, hoping to learn when, if ever, the pintxos would be available. Manager Michael Zacharias couldn't say. In fairness, Zacharias just came aboard at the restaurant, which opened in April. He says the café's operation is in a state of flux. "We have to find the most comfortable way to serve guests on our side," he explains, in reference to what can only be an awkward kitchen-sharing relationship with Triumph Grill. "We have to find the best way to set up things."

I would suggest that making the pintxos a regular feature would be a fine place to start. They're the one item that stands out among an otherwise conventional selection of tapas that will be familiar to anyone who has visited Modesto or Guido's Pizzeria & Tapas.

I'd also suggest taking the steam table out back and shooting it. Functional and efficient though it may be, it does Café Pintxos' hot tapas no favors. Ajo asado is roasted garlic, but the bulb of garlic I was served had neither the soft, spreadable texture nor the delicate, toasty-sweet flavor that garlic develops when roasted. The flavor was less pungent than that of raw garlic, but only by a tad, the texture disconcertingly al dente. The albóndigas (meatballs), made from both beef and pork, had lost much of their moisture and were leaden on the plate and the palate. They were served in a Marcona almond sauce that — there is no delicate way to put this — looked like someone had spit up tiny fragments of just-chewed almonds.

The standout among the cold tapas is the ensalada de pulpo, a small mound of chopped tomato and octopus in a bracingly tart, citrusy marinade. There is hummus, flavored with red pepper and artichoke but still, you know, hummus. Hummus might be a few hundred miles outside authentic tapas territory, but if I had it to do all over again, I'd order a big bowlful of hummus and steer clear of Café Pintxos' charcuterie and cheese board. This looked to have been cobbled together from a grocery store's deli case: paper-thin slices of ham, salami and Spanish-style chorizo, none of it distinctive, all of it tasting faintly of refrigeration. The cheeses included chunks of Manchego, crumbled Cabrales and, curiously, slices of port-wine cheese.

During my pintxos-free Saturday dinner visit, I discovered that nearly a third of the restaurant's seventeen dishes had been nixed owing to a missed shipment — everything from marinated olives to tortilla española (an omelet), from "angoradomatasalata" (an unfamiliar and Google-unfriendly term for a salad of cucumber, tomato, herbs and feta) to gambas con gabardina pintxo (saffron-poached shrimp with a spicy sauce).

As I said, you might explain away such a situation by thinking of Café Pintxos as a bar, not a restaurant, casual to a fault. Except it's clear from the planning that went into the design and the menu that this is intended to be a restaurant. All it needs is a kitchen of its own.

And some pintxos.

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