Crusty bread and fruity olives. Spanish cheeses with almonds and quince paste.
And how about those enormous fragrant platters of paella, decked with mussels?
Boca Bistro, Saratoga Springs’ Spanish restaurant and tapas bar, is not only one of the best places in town for happy hour, it’s numero uno for those of us who love to explore the world of food.
David and Roslyn Zecchini dreamed up this unique bistro after a trip to Barcelona, and two years ago it joined their armada of Italian fine-dining establishments in Saratoga and Clifton Park.
David, a native of Rome, Italy, and Roslyn, an executive chef and daughter of Michele and Ron Riggi, Saratoga’s high-society couple, also own a 65-acre farm in Galway.
WHERE: 384 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 682-2800, www.bocabistro.com, Facebook
WHEN: Lunch at 11:30 daily; dinner from 5-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thur.; 5-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 5-9 p.m. Sun.
HOW MUCH: $59.75, not including tip and one glass of wine
MORE INFO: Happy hour with $5 tapas, 4-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 12-9 p.m. Sun.
But this place, from the whimsical metal sculpture of a yellow pig posted outside to the semi-rustic brick-and-wood interior, is hardly pretentious. As in their Pasta Pane and Forno Bistro, the Zecchinis like to create atmospheres that blend Old World and contemporary.
On a recent Friday night, I arrived nearly an hour before my companion. Happy hour happens here every day of the week, and the place was buzzing. I squeezed myself into the last chair at the bar and scanned the menu of $5 tapas that you can order with wine or one of a dozen craft beers listed on a chalkboard.
“Stuffed dates,” ($8) I told the bartender.
While I was unwinding with a refreshing vinho verde, the five little fruits wrapped in cider-glazed bacon made a grand entrance on a long white rectangular dish sprinkled with microgreens. Cracking these candy-like sweets open with a knife and a fork revealed their ground almond insides.
Even at the bar, there was no skimping on service. A full-size cloth napkin, attractive silverware and a glass of water were provided.
When friend Laura arrived, we were offered seats in the main dining section, with its small and large tables. If you’re in a romantic mood, there are more intimate tables set up near wooden shelves filled with wine bottles.
Soon a dish of olives bathed in a puddle of fruity olive oil flecked with rosemary appeared with a small tin bucket of crusty bread. The olives were absolutely delicious, and the bread was very warm.
When it was time to order, I was drawn again to the tapas, and with the intention of experiencing something new or unusual, picked Octopus and Beans ($13) and Salt Cod ($10).
The crispy cod croquettes were served first, on a plate dusted with paprika and garnished with escabeche, a tongue-tickling salad of marinated tomatillos and onions.
When my second dish appeared, Laura was puzzled.
“Is that chicken?” she asked, peering at the char-grilled tentacles that poked from under a hefty thatch of arugula. The smallest tentacles were the thickness of a finger, and they rested on a bed of luscious butter beans.
While I appreciated the grilled exterior, octopus doesn’t have much flavor. Perhaps if I had cut it into smaller pieces, and incorporated it into the greens and beans, it would have been more interesting.
Laura was impressed with her Goat Cheese Salad ($13) before her fork touched the plate as the bodacious heap of Boston lettuce and pine nuts sported crispy shreds of shallot. The disc of tangy goat cheese with a carmelized coating was “awesome,” she said.
Laura’s second dish, from the tapas menu, was lobster ($16), a mélange of tender seafood pieces and buttery potato chunks topped with crispy leeks.
Crispy seems to be a theme here, and it’s expertly done.
Our mousse dessert ($9) was a knockout. The chocolate was malty, and the burnt caramel top was like crème brulee. The dessert dish, of thick clear glass, was a bit rough-looking, kind of like a mason jar, but it was fun to dip our spoons into it.
“It’s so good I want to lick the bowl,” Laura told the waiter.
While we thoroughly enjoyed our meals, we couldn’t help looking over at other diners who were reveling in pizza-sized platters of paella.
The paella is one of many reasons I plan to return.
Boca Bistro also offers six different plates of Spanish cheeses.
And there are at least two dozen other tapas, from anchovies to garlic shrimp, waiting for me to discover.