Dining Review: Ibiza is the spot for tasty Spanish bites

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Not many grown women still believe in Santa Claus, but this grandmother is an exception. Last Christmas, I asked St. Nick for a tapas bar in Pittsburgh, and this summer he delivered the goods!

Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Co-owner Horacio Ruiz holds Grilled Scallops in Mango Sauce in the Wine Room at Ibiza on the South Side.
Click photo for larger image.

Ibiza

2224 E. Carson St.
South Side
412-325-2227

Hours: Dinner 4 p.m.-midnight, Mondays-Thursdays; 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Basics: A beautifully designed contemporary space in a remodeled old historic building. The menu features 29 tapas, or small plates, in addition to Iberian-influenced entrees and desserts. An international wine list offers 44 wines by the glass. This is a hot spot for late-night dining.

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$13; entrees, $14-$29; desserts, $7; wines by glass, $7-$39.

Summary: Smoking at high-top tables in rear of restaurant. Wheelchair accessible. Free valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended on weekends.

What, exactly, are tapas anyway? In Spain, tapas are tasty tidbits of food served as snacks between meals. Normally they are consumed with a glass of dry sherry while standing at a bar. Spaniards go to bars to join friends, converse and socialize. Tapar means "to cover" in Spanish, and the story goes that the first tapa was a thin slice of Serrano ham served on top of a sherry glass to keep out flies. The salty ham had another purpose for the bar owner: It brought on a powerful thirst for another glass of sherry.

Thus the tradition was born. And today every region in Andalusia has its own specialty tapas. In Seville, Spain, there is an annual festival where chefs gather to show off their latest tapas creations. Tapas are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, where rather than being a bite to accompany a glass of wine, they are combined in sufficient number to provide an entire meal. The tapas craze has now hit Pittsburgh.

Ibiza is Pittsburgh's tapas destination. It is the creation of Antonio Pereira, the owner of Mallorca Restaurant, which is next door, and Horacio Ruiz. They have spared no expense turning the old East Carson Street building into a sleek venue with exposed brick walls, bright colors, murals by local artists and a smashingly beautiful bar framed by lots of hanging crystal glasses. The long and narrow space features floor-to-ceiling windows at either end that bring in heaps of natural light. Behind the restaurant is a delightful walled patio with a waterfall.

The menu is divided into soups, salads, cold tapas, hot tapas, pastas, entrees, fish and desserts. The primary focus is on tapas, and there are 29 listings between hot and cold. I did not go beyond tapas to the conventional pastas and entrees, but I did enjoy two full meals of only tapas. From the list of cold dishes I especially loved the simple plates that required little preparation in the kitchen, such as Manchego cheese and apples ($7). Thin slices of Granny Smith apple were fanned across one side of the plate and slices of cheese on the other. I passed over the mushroom or tomato and basil bruschettas ($5) for something more typical of Sevilla -- Spanish cheeses and cured Serrano ham ($12). After all, this sliced ham was present at the birth of tapas. Serrano ham is the Spanish equivalent of prosciutto, a brine-soaked and air-dried ham that is cured in the mountain air of Serrano for a minimum of three months.

More Italian than Spanish is the beef carpaccio with arugula salad ($9). Regardless of national origins, this is a delicious combination, and the Ibiza salad was fresh and dressed with a tart, lemony vinaigrette. White asparagus vinaigrette ($7) is another great cold tapas. The rare white asparagus is fresh and not overcooked. The generous portion allowed four fat spears each when serving two persons.

Among the hot tapas, my favorite was the artichoke fritters ($8). These were quarters of artichoke battered and deep fried to a crispy exterior leaving a chewy choke inside. There were six pieces on the plate. Less satisfactory were the Spanish ham fritters. These batter-dipped fritters were mostly mashed potatoes with a few tiny bits of ham mixed in. The ham imparted no flavor.

Tortilla de patatas ($5) is a favorite in Spanish bars and can be served hot or room temperature. This is really an omelette with potato and onion, and Ibiza serves it hot. Grilled squid with garlic and parsley ($8) was a sizzling platter of squid pieces drowning in olive oil and overpowered by too much garlic. On another visit I had the grilled jumbo shrimp ($10) instead. This time I was longing for some of the excess garlic from the squid. The shrimp were dry and tasteless. Grilled sardines ($7) were nicely charred on the outside and, with a squirt of fresh lemon and a sprinkling of salt, evoked memories of many a sardine consumed in Spain.

Two lovely hot tapas are grilled quail in red wine sauce ($8) and filet mignon medallion with mushroom sauce ($13). Both of these plates presented well-prepared meats with interesting sauces that fleshed out the small-plate meal. I have always loved rice cooked in squid ink. In Spain, this black rice normally comes with squid pieces. Ibiza serves the rice with other shellfish, paella negra ($17). I found the rice overcooked and mushy. I don't recommend this dish.

Flan, the quintessential Spanish dessert, is the best sweet choice on the Ibiza menu. Flan with vanilla and honey ($7) is straight from Iberia and is the perfect way to end the tapas evening.

Although this is a Spanish restaurant and bar, the wine list features 44 wines, only four of which are from Spain. All 44 wines are available by the glass in 6-ounce pours. They also come in flights of four wines from one country, 2 ounces of each. This means you can buy a mini-tasting of Spanish, Portuguese, California or Italian wines (among others) or a glass or bottle of any particular wine on the list. When I dined at Ibiza, sherries were sadly neglected. Since tapas were designed especially to accompany sherries, this was an enigma. The owner tells me this situation has been corrected and that there is now a list of seven sherries available by glass (3 ounces) or bottle. Bottles average $30.

For a truly authentic tapas experience, I suggest you drink a "fino" or "manzanilla" sherry with this food. These are the driest of the sherries. Sweeter sherries such as Bristol cream or Amontillado do not pair nearly so well with most of the plates.

I find the prices of wines here somewhat steep. The bottle prices are at the very top of the markup scale, which is to say 300 percent, but the surcharge for ordering by the glass pushes this still higher. The price for the flight of four wines, which totals 8 ounces, compounds the effect of the high glass price. I suggest you avoid the temptation of ordering by the glass. If your table will drink at least three glasses, your fourth glass will be free if you order the entire bottle.

My visits to Ibiza took place during the summer when I found their quiet and private rear patio to be one of the most charming spots in Pittsburgh. Sitting under a bright, full moon or a pink-striated sky while sampling the goodies Santa brought to the 'Burgh made for a memorable evening. Unfortunately, this opportunity is now lost. Mr. Pereira has covered the patio with a permanent canvas roof so that the space can be used rain or shine. In cooler weather he will add heat lamps. The roof blocks not only the moonbeams and starlight but also much of the daylight that formerly filtered into the dining room during the day. I can only hope this folly will be recognized and that one day we can reclaim what was a wonderful, fresh-air space lit by moon and stars.

If you haven't yet had a tapas experience, now is your chance. The menu and wine list will soon be revamped for the winter season.


Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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