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I have lived in this city long enough to see restaurants come and go; buildings torn down and others built up. This was one of those times, where I have been to a location now reinvented. Given my less than stellar rating of the original, we were eager to see how its latest reincarnation would fare. Once home to “Crave” is has now been rebranded as a tapas restaurant.

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Located on Main Street, parking is tricky depending on time of day. We were aiming for mid afternoon so had our pick of the lot: side streets, metered parking, or lane ways with nothing signed. We came right at 3pm and caught the server still in mid prep. We let ourselves in anyways, as she confirmed the time. We were led to the very back of the restaurant. Pass the small bar upfront with seats facing out the window. Pass the shelf by the hostess podium, showcasing wine by the bottle. Our table was the closest to door leading to their patio out back; like the one out front, it was now close for the season. Though I could imagine both being quite the destination on a hot summer’s day. On weekends sangrias were on special for $5, an ideal drink in July, under the shade that their backyard patio provided. The patio out front was divided from the interior by a glass paned garage door. With a push of a bottom or a pull of crank this door would roll up and the space would open up. Instant fresh air. Though all these luxuries would have to wait until the days grew longer and the weather became less wet.

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The layout was as I remembered, it was the decor and menu that had been redesigned. The walls were papered in print and hung with Spanish posters. Each poster of various size was framed with various frames. They created visual interest. I couldn’t read what each read, but found them whimsical none-the-less. Especially the one with the mime dressed like a clown holding a bottled beverage in each hand. He wore a full black oversized onsie with ruffled collar; a masquerade mask covering half his face; and a top his head, a pointed cone for a hat. From afar the wallpaper resembled smudged ink blots in grey on a sheet white, but with a closer inspection they actually likened to a faux marble finish.

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Despite the large windows looking out at street level and the lighter coloured walls, the place was kept dark. Little was done to add brightness to the place. The lights were dimmed and the furniture was dark. Combined with narrow isles and the unique smell it felt like we were dining in a basement.

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The restaurant had a smell to it. An overwhelming punctuation that reminded me of rust and cobwebs. The kind of musky perfume suited to a great aunt or a duchess living in a dusty old mansion. Almost floral, but more befitting of an antique store, not a clean, well kept establishment serving food. As scent is attached to taste this concerned me. One of my guests insisted it was mould that we were breathing in. Either way it was outdated and unpleasant, but not enough for us to leave. The smell was eventually drowned out with familiarity and the sweeter scents of our dishes arriving.

What better for a meal in between meals than tapas, meant to be shared amongst friends. The website led me to believe we would be experiencing authentic Spanish tapas, in actuality the small plates had more of a Mediterranean influence, as listed by the menu.

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The menu was a one pager with specials printed in chalk. Conveniently the latter was listed on a blackboard strung up to our right. We only needed to look up and point to order. We were in time for their happy hour between 3-6pm. There were no separate menus to order off of, instead our server mentioned what would now be $5 instead of its regular price. Disappointingly this selection consisted of only three items and Pabst Blue Ribbon for $3 a can. We would later discover there were actually six $5 specials offered during happy hour, but only three were made available to us. A titbit we gathered from a takeaway insert included with our bill. How could they run out given we were the first customers in at 3pm and the first ones to order?

Vegetarian dishes indicated with a lower case “v” and “*” meant nuts. There were plenty for our vegetarian guest to partake in and plates delicious enough for us to share in. Plate after plate came and I appreciated how they all matched in colour and size. Visual consistency is a thing of beauty.

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“Charcuterie and cheese” the perfect pairing to wine and a good way to start our meal. It was an interactive display with lots of flavours and textures to discover alone or partner together. Cured meats and smoked cheeses, briny olives, fresh fruit, marinated mushrooms, pickled veggies, and crisp crackers and toasted bread to eat it all with. Our server had difficulty remembering all their formal names, I don’t blame her. I can’t even recall what she did manage to remember. This by far is one of the most elaborate charcuterie and cheese boards I have ever had. Not just the usual meat and cheeses with bread. But seasoned and pickled vegetables: button mushrooms, cauliflower, asparagus, cucumber, and carrots; were an impressive ensemble. And the condiments and spreads included were an added bonus: a grainy mustard, a sweet and spicy chilli jam, and a citrus jelly compote.

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I have never seen so much blue cheese offered in any menu. We, three women, decided to indulge in the stuff as our partners prefer not to. They are unable to get past the cheese’s pungent smell to taste its bitter and buttery goodness. Unfortunately the two dishes they were supposed in had us playing hide and seek with its flavour.
We ordered the “Empanadas” on special for $5. Regularly it goes for $12, at that price I assume you at least get one more. Two empanadas filled with beef brisket and blue cheese, served with a Chimichirra sauce. When we cracked into each empanada it was piping hot with the steam that escaped. With its flaky pastry and thoroughly heated filling you could tell this was made to order. As mentioned I couldn’t make out any blue cheese promised on the menu, and I was looking and tasting hard for it. The beef was tender and pulled to a stringy consistency, having it baked in a crispy shell kept it moist. Though after the first bite I grew bored of its one note taste. Luckily the mild Chimichirra sauce help to add acidity and freshness to the dish, and to perk it up with a little spice.

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“Patatas Bravas”, their in house specialty. Baked and fried potato cubes served under a creamy garlic, chilli, tomato sauce. This varies from traditional Spanish cuisine, as most Spanish food isn’t meant to be spicy. Whereas this dish was almost too spicy. “Bravas” in the title is used to refer to the use of many spices in the dish, not that it is spicy hot. Without warning of the heat I took in a large mouthful with lots of thick sauce, thinking it would be similar to a homemade ketchup. Instead I set my mouth on fire, though it doesn’t help that I don’t have much of a tolerance for spicy hot foods in the first place. Once my tongue cooled, I only dared to pick at the un-sauced potatoes existing at the corners of the plate. The potatoes had a grainy, cakey consistency to them, like they weren’t cooked through. Whereas I expected a crispy bite given their golden brown exterior. They were bland, relying too heavily on the sauce for its flavour. They could have benefited with some more salt and a lot more seasonings.

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“Bruselas”, their signature dish that came highly recommended by our server. Sautéed and grilled Brussels sprouts served in a balsamic reduction, sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and slivered almonds. It doesn’t look too appetizing, but this was my favourite dish of the night. I enjoy a good deep fried sprout, but unfortunately didn’t get it here. The intended crispiness was lost due to the pool of sauce that each bulb was forced to sit in. The reduction had a sweater flavour that was most complimentary to the bitter vegetable and the salty cheese. The dish needed it to pop, but I suggest serving the balsamic on the side for self dipping instead. Thus allowing each Brussels sprout to remain crispy and giving the diner control of how much or how little sauce they wanted.

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The “Manchego stuffed dates wrapped in bacon” were on the board of specials. At $5 we didn’t need happy hour prices to enjoy them. Three one bite morsels of sweet and salty, chewy and gooey. Crisp bacon and melted cheese is a winning combination. Though the skewers could have done with some freshness. Maybe a sheet of pancetta for wrapping, instead of the overwhelmingly salty taste of bacon and the oily texture of bacon fat. For added sweetness and spice smear into the drizzle of balsamic and chilli mayo decorating the bottom of the plate.

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“El Tomate”, oven roasted tomato in a blue cheese sauce. This took the longest to come, and what we eventually got was not what we had expected. We imagined a whole round and red heirloom tomato; baked in the oven until charred, then seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Surprisingly the tomatoes was yellow and there were two smaller ones still on the vine, instead of one large. It was a strikely well composed plate visually. Given that the quantity per order is not listed, it would have been nice of our server to offer to bump the order up, to charge more so that each of us could have our own tomato. This instead of attempting to split the last half three ways. The blue cheese was more pronounced here, a sharp and smokey after taste that paired well with the syrup-like balsamic drizzle. With the pointed slices of baguette we likened the dish to a do-it-yourself Italian bruschetta. The tomatoes themselves were a soggy pulpy bite, a texture that reminded me of baby food. I have had good roasted tomato in the past, and on each occasion it was done keeping some of its original firmness in tact. Whereas here, the fruit/vegetable caved in with just one cut. The thicker, lumper sauce did little to improve the enjoyment of eating the tomato mash; but the bread and it’s toasted crunch did help to add a solid texture.

Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – No.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – No.
Given what little of the menu we tried I wouldn’t be against a return trip. Solely based on its vegetarian offerings I deem them decent. But maybe dining with a omnivore, like myself, I will find more enjoyment in ordering off the full menu. Returning with someone who can appreciate anchovy toast, sautéed prawns in garlic cream, mussels in a white wine butter sauce, clams with chorizo and goat cheese, squid saut éed with capers, and braised short ribs. Or someone who would prefer more deep frying in their happy hour meal. Greasy sides to partner with cheap beer. “Cobello Fritos” spanish onion rings, homemade fries served with a roasted red pepper aioli, or potato crusted chicken wings. Overall the experience was decent: our server was very informal, the setting was comfortable enough, and the food average at best. There was just nothing that stood out for all the right reasons. An overall rating that may have be higher if not for the smell of the place. Don’t deny your cravings.

TAPAS 23
3941 Main Street, Vancouver BC, V5V3P5
604-620-8300
tapas23.com
Tapas 23 on Urbanspoon