Dining Out at Tres Gatos

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |

TRES GATOS IS A QUIRKY PLACE: a bookstore and a tapas bar rolled into one. So of course it’s in Jamaica Plain, where it fits right in. The restaurant is located in a Centre Street building that for years housed Rhythm & Muse, a shop that sold books and vinyl (and some CDs). It long had a café in the front, but that was an afterthought — a place where bohemian types, never in short supply in J.P., would gather. The retail operation still occupies the back of the space, but the front has been converted into a restaurant.    

[sidebar]And the timing couldn’t have been better. With the imminent opening of Boston’s newest Whole Foods — surely the most contested non-Walmart ever to open in an urban area — in nearby Hyde Square, the neighborhood looks poised to continue its red-hot growth. Already this forlorn block is looking like yuppie central, and Tres Gatos will be ready to scoop up those lured by the new supermarket.

But, like everything in J.P., it’s better than some plainly commercial venture cashing in on a trend. The tapas at Tres Gatos are painstakingly made with fresh ingredients, including herbs and vegetables that co-owner David Doyle brings to the executive chef, Marcos Sanchez, after restorative afternoon gardening breaks at his Roslindale home.

The newly renovated front room is surprisingly sleek for folksy J.P. — walls in a rich chocolate brown, warm yet dim light fixtures, and an alluring mural on the back wall of what looks like a color illustration from a 19th-century book on Spanish or Latin-American farms. There’s more seating at counters — and along a bar looking into a big open kitchen — than there is at sit-down tables, which adds to the casual, easy vibe. So does the service, which is familiar and friendly while also attentive and knowledgeable.

The 12 items on the tapas menu — not counting the four cured meats (here called “xarcuterie”) and four cheeses, each $5 a taste — and a smattering of pinchos, or little nibbles, make for a smallish selection that’s variable in quality. But everything is well priced, from $6 for two of the best dishes, tortilla española and patatas bravas, to $13 for grilled bavette steak. And when they’re good they’re memorably good — plates worth traveling across town to try.

Top among these is gambas all i pebre, head-on shrimp sautéed in a rich and complex sauce ($10). The prawns are freshwater farmed, and Sanchez goes through an elaborate process to make that sauce: roasting the shells with several whole heads of garlic till they’re almost burned; deglazing the pan with Pernod, coriander, and fennel; adding tomato and roasting it further; and sautéing the shrimp with chilis and chorizo oil. Then he thickens the concoction with a pine-nut picada, a purée of parsley, day-old bread, and more garlic. I had to get an extra plate (there are four to an order). Sanchez told me he goes through a case of shrimp a day; these are, and should remain, Tres Gatos’s signature dish.

Photographs by Michael Piazza

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.  


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