So, Wednesday night I had the pleasure of accompanying some friends to Pintxo, a recently opened restaurant on Roy, right in the heart of the Plateau. There’s no question New Spanish cuisine is very hot right now. The number of articles I’ve come across in the last year or so that detail Spain’s regional cuisines and the crop of bright chefs, young and old, who are busy reinventing and reinvigorating the Spanish culinary scene right now has been staggering. One of the regions that’s attracted the most attention is Spain’s Basque country, and the best article I’ve read on New Basque cuisine was one by R.W. Apple, Jr. in a May 2004 issue of the New York Times. There, Apple discusses everything from the impact of Juan Mari Arzak, “the founding father of modern Spanish cuisine,” to the virtuoso grilling he discovers in the mountains between Bilbao and San Sebastian, but one of the most interesting sections is the one where he details the elaborate rituals involved in going out for pintxos (a word which is the Basque equivalent to tapas) in San Sebastian. These include the accompaniment of your cuadrilla--a large group of friends (up to 20) with whom you’ll remain loyal throughout most, if not all, of your adult life—a circuit of some 10-15 stops, and a limit of one drink and only one or two pintxos per stop. Modern-day Basque pintxos include everything from classics like “the Gilda,” which combines medium-hot guindilla peppers, olives, and briny anchovies, an ensemble that was said to be as spicy as the Rita Hayworth film of the same name, to what Apple calls “creative pintxos.” Pintxos have been a mainstay of Basque culture for ages, but the emergence of the “creative pintxos” has been something of a phenomenon, encouraging former 3-star chefs to drop-out of the high-end restaurant scene and to show off their eye for detail as pintxo chefs, and introducing many new ingredients, many new flavors to the Basque palate along the way. And it’s this “creative pintxos” scene that is the inspiration behind Pintxo here in Montreal.
Because of the prices—$3-$4 per dish—we asked our waiter if the pintxos they had on offer were the size of typical tapas dishes. He specified that these dishes were more like amuses bouches and really only amounted to a “bite.” He was right, they were smaller than most tapas dishes I’ve had in Montreal, but, oh!, what lovely little bites they were. The flavors came at us in intriguing combinations, and, for the most part, each of these pintxos was created with the artistry and attention to detail of fine sushi. We ordered quite a few of the 11 pintxos on the menu, and we found it easy to share most of these items between the three of us. Each of our bites was small, but tasty. Our selections included txipirones a lo pelayo (calamari with oignons confits), vieras con su txapela (pan seared scallops with roe), and txampis relleno como me enseño Arzak (mushrooms stuffed with duck confit served in a manner that apparently was learned from Arzak himself). My favorites, though, were the Bonito en cama de pisto (a piece of tuna served rosé on a bed of ratatouille), the tartar de salmon del rio Bidasosa (a delicately spicy terrine of salmon), and the Pintxo de foie con su cebolla confitada (a wonderful dish made with foie gras, oignons confits, nuts, and fruit). The only selection we made that was disappointing was their Alcatxofas con Jamon Serrano (stewed artichoke hearts with bits of ham), a dish which seemed promising but in fact was uninspired.
One of the things that Apple makes quite clear in his article is that while there exists no hostility between the high-end restaurants and those that specialize in pintxos (as proof, he notes that Arzak handed him a list of his favorite pintxos houses completely by surprise as Apple was leaving his 3-star restaurant), restaurants don’t try to specialize in both. It was somewhat unsurprising, therefore, that Pintxo’s main dishes, while good, didn’t really live up to the expectations created by their pintxos. My recommendation: bring your cuadrilla and stick to Pintxo’s strong suit, their lovely pintxos, then make good use of their excellent wine list.
Pintxo, 256 Roy E., 844-0222