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

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.

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.