TAPAS WITH A TWIST The garlicky gambas all i pebre are a sophisticated spin on a classic dish.
I didn't like the idea of Tres Gatos, but turns out it's a very impressive restaurant. My negativity could be traced back to the demise of the Roseway used-book store in this space. Its proprietress eventually gave up the books and leased to Rhythm and Muse, an alternative CD/book store where young folks liked to hang out. Then she sold the building to new owners, who decided they wanted a tapas bar to go with the books and music. As Tres Gatos was developed, the restaurant part got bigger and the book/music store got smaller, and now there are cafe tables in two other rooms of the converted apartment, and a magical quince tree somehow growing on a patio out in front, where Roseway Books had a rickety wheelchair ramp.
To me, a used-book store was fun, and a new restaurant is work. But my prejudices were all overcome in one evening, as I enjoyed a truly heartfelt tribute to Spanish tapas, with some modern Catalan and Basque influences here and there. The proprietors grabbed a chef from Dante and a sous chef from Craigie on Main — two excellent schools apparently, as we couldn't find a weak spot in pinchos, tapas, small plates, or whatever you want to call them.
Well, maybe the canonical tortilla española ($6) could be a little oilier and eggier version of this addictive potato omelet. Boquerones ($5) — white anchovies — would be fresh and fried in Spain, but pickled like herring they are delectable bites on Italian crusty bread, a fair stand-in for Spanish bread.
Gambas all i pebre ($10) is a much more sophisticated spin on another classic tapa, shrimp in garlic sauce. These are shell-on prawns in a rich and complex Catalan sauce that reminds you to refill that breadbasket. Albondigas ($10) came as five pork-chorizo spicy meatballs, in another red sauce that just wouldn't quit.
Espárragos a la brasa ($9, add poached egg/$11) were thick asparagus with grill marks, a lot of sea salt and another Catalan sauce, and the egg is worth adding. Patatas bravas ($6) are crisped outside, with a hot mayonnaise dip, another spin away from Spanish tradition that could inspire the original masters.
"Crispy confit of chicken thigh" ($12) is an experiment that I don't think works. The southwest French technique of curing duck or goose pieces and preserving them in rendered fat stiffens the meat, which can then be baked or fried in a bit of the same fat. American chickens aren't stringy enough to hold together, and so this confit tastes undercured and overcooked. It does come out on an excellent salad of corn off the cob, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and sharp greens.
But I have no issue at all with the grilled bavette steak ($13) served in thick slices with fried onions and a just-slightly-smoky eggplant puree my Romanian ancestors would have respected in any language. Any time they want to go bistro and throw some French fries on this, they can double the price.