Restaurant Review: Tres Gatos

With this bookstore-café turned tapas bar, J.P. has scored the best kind of neighborhood spot.

dining out

Photo by Michael Piazza

Colorful murals and warm lighting make this former bookstore-cafe a cozy dinner spot for locals. 

Sanchez isn’t Spanish. He grew up in California, is of Mexican heritage, and cooked Italian food at Dante in Cambridge for four years. Extending his repertoire to Spanish food wasn’t a stretch, he told me; he simply read every book he could on the cuisine to develop his takes on classics. I applaud the originality of some of them, but I still miss the plain originals. Tortilla española ($6), the oniony egg-and-potato cake every tapas place has sitting on its bar, is a prime example. Sanchez poaches the potatoes in oil like a confit before cooking them slowly with egg; the final texture is crumbly and custardy rather than the firm and oily I prefer. But the flavor, complemented by a pimentón aioli, is good, particularly because the eggs are from Brookline’s Allandale Farm.

Those eggs also feature in another star dish: espárragos a la brasa ($9), grilled asparagus with romesco sauce. This version of the traditional garlic-tomato-bread sauce is made with pasilla peppers and hazelnuts in addition to the classic almonds. Order the oil-poached egg ($2 extra) on top, and it becomes a Spanish take on the Florentine classic of poached egg over asparagus, but better and more satisfying — and fragrant with the Greek olive oil Sanchez often uses. (He alternates between Spanish and Greek.)

Two other standards are stars on Sanchez’s stove. Flavored with oregano from Doyle’s garden and piquillo and pasilla peppers, chorizo-spiced albondigas — meatballs with saffron cream and chimichurri ($10) — were porky at the start and warmly peppery from cumin and coriander at the end. Sanchez builds his own tomato sauce from a pork-bone-and-chicken base and makes the saffron cream with his own crème fraîche. The other classic is croquetas de jamón y queso ($9). The fritters are made with trimmings and end pieces of various fancy hams and chorizo as well as Spanish cheeses, blended with potatoes and herbs, breaded and fried, and served with a lightly cheesy, creamy Mornay sauce. These are true to the spirit of croquetas: They’re a way to use leftovers. But with high-quality ingredients and great breading and frying, they’ve become tater tots gone to heaven.

Then there are the less successful dishes. The pinchos menu’s boquerones ($5), or cured anchovies, were too sharp from vinegar. Mussels with chorizo, sherry, and garlic ($10) were both dry and overwhelmed by slightly burned garlic. Bavette steak with crispy shallots and smoky eggplant purée ($13) had great, beefy flavor but awfully chewy slices of meat. Most disappointing was one of my favorite tapas standards, pan con tomate, garlicky toasts rubbed with fresh tomatoes and olive oil ($7). The slab of grilled halloumi cheese on top was thick and rubbery, and too salty coupled with the already salted tomatoes. Twice-fried patatas bravas ($6) were irresistible, but the two sauces, aioli and a salsa brava, seemed one too many.

Desserts aren’t up to the level of anything else on the menu. Churros ($7), squiggly crullers served with thick hot chocolate, were greasy and underfried, and the spiced Taza chocolate sauce was too heavily peppered. Grilled yellow peaches with vanilla ice cream and burnt-orange honey ($8) were one-note sweet. Chocolate Marcona almonds ($5), fried and dipped into melted chocolate with lots of salt, then coated with powdered sugar, were oily but a better bet; that combination is hard to resist.

Tres Gatos, with its food and atmosphere, made me want to make dates to meet friends here. The restaurant is one more addition to a changing neighborhood where no change is uncontroversial — but this one points to a future I’m very happy to see coming.

Tres Gatos, 470 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-477-4851, tresgatosjp.com.  

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

dining out

Photo by Michael Piazza

Head on prawns with toasted garlic and pine-nut picada, $10

dining out

Photo by Michael Piazza

Chorizo-spiced pork meatballs with saffron cream and chimichurri, $10

dining out

Photo by Michael Piazza

Chocolate Marcona almonds, $5

dining out

Photo by Michael Piazza

Ham and cheese croquetas, $9

Plus Asparagus with romesco sauce, $9 | Grilled bavette steak, $13 | Churros and chocolate, $7

ADVERTISMENT