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Spanish charm and savory tapas to warm a Boston winter

As darkness closes in on another New England winter, let us fantasize about Spain. Not paella-on-the-beach Spain, nor dry-south-wind-blowing- dirt-into-your-eyes Spain, nor sheep-on-the-hill -below-the-castle Spain, nor op-art-of-the-sunflowers- turned-all-one-way Spain, nor still windblown-sand-in-your-eyes- down-the-back-streets-of-Madrid Spain, but about buildings with stone walls older than most languages, plastered over a dozen times, and cool in the afternoon. Our naps are done, thereís no real eating until midnight; let us have a few tapas and a cold drink of dry sherry.

Let us go then to BarLola, down underground where once was Spasso, a decent-enough quasi-Italian trendorium. There have been other restaurants and clubs here before, even the fatal Hotel Vendome fire, and yet BarLolaís Spanish-style tapas bar feels so right and so authentic in these linked rooms with painted brick walls that itís hard to remember anything else. While I have enjoyed all the tapas places in Boston, from Dalí to Taberna de Haro, BarLola just has the look. It carries everything else back to a particular Spain that can be kept indoors with low light and sangria, even when there is a most un-Spanish slush outdoors.

The Lola part evokes Pedro Almodovarís movie, Run Lola Run, and so does the Spanish hip-hop played between the techno. The bullfight posters are laminated into the tables. At each of the latter is a zinnia, like a red echo of the sunflowers. The walls are white brick, with art and craft. The floor is painted, which is more Frida Kahlo than Spain, but very pretty.

In fact, BarLola lacks my favorite tapa from Spain, fried calamari, and the variety of barnacles and fried little fish. But they do have many of the classics among their nine cold and 27 or so hot little plates: the fried shrimp (although no one yet throws the shells on the floor), the potato omelet, the ham and Manchego cheese, and the translucent shrimp in garlic oil.

To start with the fried shrimp, they are gambas rebozados ($7.50) ó you are lisping the Zs by now, arenít you? ó and they are butterflied, have some shells, but also a wonderful little sweet sauce. The potato omelet ($6.50) has a confusing name: tortilla. It isnít flat and it should be made by slow-frying potatoes in ludicrous amounts of olive oil, then pouring in egg at the end. Ours is two generous wedges, but they lack seasoning. In fact, even the ham and cheese lacks something. That something is not edibility, nor authenticity. It may be the sherry, as we have compromised with sangria. The Manchego cheese (which might well come from La Mancha) and the Serrano ham (about which I am more dubious, because it is softer and less funky than Spanish ham) make a melting combination ($8) in four large bites. This is one tapa I would not consume in its entirety. Too much cheese for one person.

The translucent shrimp in garlic oil ($8) is lots of good eating; careful of the drips, now. Pincho de pollo ($7) is four skewered chunks of chicken on their way to becoming satay, but a creamy mushroom sauce assures us they will never get to Thailand before being eaten up. Pollo al chillandron ($7) is a throwback to medieval dishes of chicken, almonds, and raisins. If this reminds you of Sicilian food, remember that Sicily was part of Spain (or a Catalan kingdom) for much of modern history, rejoining Italy only in the mid 19th century. Thinly sliced beef, solomillo ($8), is wonderful in another cream sauce. Estofado de cordero ($6.50) is lamb in Moorish style; it is indeed almost a Moroccan stew. With rice this would be dinner.

And there are new tapas to imagine new Spains with. Patatas ali-oli ($5) is a dish of roast potatoes with a creamy garlic sauce. Bunuelos ($4.50) are four round fritters with vegetables woven in. Something more traditional, squid stuffed with shrimp and crab ($7.50), has real flavor; the portion is three small squid bodies, each held together with a toothpick.

Another of the best items is also traditional, croquetas ($7), three soft chicken croquettes breaded and fried, and served hot in a cold tomato sauce. The contrast is everything. Artichokes in vinaigrette ($7.50) are served with pimentos. Both are canned, yet the effect is solid. Esparragos vascos ($8) are canned white asparagus, also effective, in a choice of mayonnaise or a richer (must be the Basque part) dressing. Itís not that tapas arenít for vegetarians, more like the Spaniards have a similar view of vegetables as the French, which is that most vegetables are really for horses.

About that sangria ($6/glass; $22/pitcher): it is sweeter than I remember it, but just as irresistible on a moist fall evening in Boston as on a hot summer day on the Mediterranean coast. The tapas, even ordered in two waves, fly by, and we are full. Then there is a pause, and because we have to go to the theater, we miss dessert. Dessert is not a Spanish concept, mostly. Here there is bread pudding and the like, but we will wait for another time when winter is closing in.

Our servers were true Spaniards, and lots of fun on an early evening when they had time. As the restaurant filled up, things slowed down, and thatís how we lost our desserts. Make this your evening out (and careful with the sangria), and youíll get dessert, eventually.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.

Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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