How did we dine before we had tapas?
There is so much to love about these Spanish-inspired nibbles.
Appetizer-sized plates multiply the opportunities for gustatory pleasure. Small servings are eaten slowly and mindfully. And perhaps, like Europeans, we linger over our food and talk more.
On a cold winter night, my husband, Dan, and I ventured into Thirsty Owl Wine Outlet & Bistro in Saratoga Springs.
After a scanning the online menu, I was eager to try their tapas. Dan couldn’t wait to check out the restaurant’s wine shop and tasting room.
Like many Saratoga establishments, Thirsty Owl is connected to thoroughbred racing.
For years, owner Ted Cupp owned horses and raced them in the city. Twelve years ago, the Cupp family sold their horses and bought a 150-acre vineyard in the Finger Lakes.
On the shores of Cayuga Lake, they grow grapes and operate a casual, seasonal bistro where visitors can sample their award-winning wines and snack on tapas. Their Saratoga location, though far from the vines, is year-round and more upscale, with a full menu of entrees plus tapas, created by chef Luis Marin.
While the food is sophisticated, the atmosphere is more publike than patrician. There are no white tablecloths, and a few of the diners were wearing jeans.
The Cupps have remodeled the former Kimberly Inn, which was once a two-story home. The tasting room, in the back of the house, has a big, friendly bar and wooden bins and shelves stocked with wine.
Lunch and dinner are served in two parlor-type rooms in the front of the house and, in the summer, outdoors on a patio.
As soon as we were seated, our engaging and knowledgeable server guided us through the wine menu.
Thirsty Owl makes 20 wines, both red and white, and is known for its Dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer.
To help us choose, our server brought us four samples. We whiffed, sipped and compared, then selected a Riesling and a Pinot Noir.
Seconds after the glasses of wine appeared, our first nosh arrived. Thin toasts, topped with a rosy tomato cream, were compliments of the chef.
Instead of entrees, we each decided to order cups of soup, $7, and two tapas, most of which are in the $9 to $13 range.
Like a delicate blossom, a tiny pastry puff floated in my cream-of-celery soup, with its whispers of green veggie.
“Very good,” the husband said of his roasted butternut soup, dabbed with a swirl of chive and sage cream.
When the first pair of tapas arrived, our conversation stopped as we admired the white rectangular plates with their colorful swishes of sauce, thin chive spears and single fruit or veggie accents.
“Vieiras,” or scallops, are one of Chef Marin’s specialties, and these were offered with white chocolate chipotle sauce and wild mushroom quinoa.
“Tender as can be,” said Dan. This was high praise, as my husband grew up near the Atlantic and usually shuns scallops away from his hometown.
My first tapas plate, “Paella Negra” ($13), was the highlight of the evening. It was dark as midnight, this molded dome of black rice, and as it was set before me I inhaled the sweet scent of the sea.
The blackness comes from squid ink, which has a mild salty taste, like fresh raw clams.
Dense and slightly sticky, the black rice concealed bits of shrimp, calamari, scallops and roasted red pepper, and was crowned with a dramatic black jumbo shrimp standing on end.
With each morsel, I was transported to a romantic evening at an outdoor café in Venice, where I tasted my first inky dish, black pasta with cuttlefish.
Dan, my dining partner in Venice, finds nothing romantic about squid ink, but he raved about his herb-crusted lamb lollipops, which were nestled with root veggies and sauced with a mustard-raspberry reduction.
My second dish was quail, a bird no bigger than a child’s palm, which was halved, grilled and served with a large button of polenta and a fruity coulis with which to swipe the meat.
For dessert, we couldn’t resist a goat cheese and thyme cheesecake drizzled with Thirsty Owl Sauvignon Ice Wine. Sweet but tangy and the size of a hockey puck, it was a satisfying finale to our leisurely tapas tour.
On Monday nights during the winter, Thirsty Owl is offering half-price tapas.
That might include Seared Duck Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Blackberry Coulis and Yucca Chip or Escargot with Puff Pastry, Garlic Herb Butter and Cream of Thirsty Owl Merlot.
Dan and I plan to do Tapas Night. Maybe we’ll see you there.
Just look for a woman ecstatically inhaling a dish of black rice.
That would be me.