What we liked most about this candlelit closet on 20th & Sansom is that it corrects the drawbacks of Amada, namely the noise and close quarters. While the first floor is raucous as a Bangkok nightclub with its reservations-only bar, cocktail tables, and open kitchen, there's a more intimate feeling below-decks for those looking for less of a scene. In the downstairs lounge, Tinto boasts spacious seating for about two dozen on marshmallow settees. The buttercup-colored sofas flank broad tables that can safely accommodate several pintxos (North Spain's answer to tapas) at once without the imminent plate-overboard episodes that are likely at Amada. We hear one old dude with a much younger Joan Shepp-ed wife complain about wanting to sit upstairs. We think he needs to go back on his meds.
The menu (see it here, with gracias to Foobooz) is divided into pintxos and more substantial offerings. Dishes arrive with natural flow, two or three at a time instead of in an all-out onslaught of Basque treats. The mixtos of charcuterie and cheese are pleasant intros. Three cheeses are generously portioned for $15, when a single fromage costs $6 or $7. Love that bleu de Basque with a sliver of quince paste and crescent of green apple. The sampler of bar snacks ("surditos") come in a long, slender plate, its dimples filled with gossamer potato chips in rich lobster creme, sweet figs wrapped in Seranno, meaty Marcona almonds, silvery anchovy skewer around cantaloupe, and baby Arbequina olives the size of marbles.
Squares of Kobe beef with poached egg with beef-truffle consomme poured table-side seemed a little too trendy for its own good--snackbar does a similar dish with pork belly and dashi--but we can't argue with its rich flavor and luscious mouthfeel. Moules Basque arrive in a mini clay pot, the de-shelled mussels brimming in a hearty sauce hiding jewels of chorizo. Accompanying frites are yummy for dipping. From the "montaditos," crostini with honey-glazed pork belly and tart shaved apple slaw offer sharp flavor contrast.
Another montadito, this one with Seranno-wrapped duck confit and a layer of Basque bleu cheese (pictured) won our award for best pinxtos. The sinful black cherries that accompany the bruschette, wow, we could eat a whole bowl of them and die happy. Our other fave: the turbot, seared a la plancha for an outrageously moist piece of fish. The pastis-laced sauce links up with baby fennel for an undercurrent of licorice, and segments of orange, lime, and grapefruit set the whole thing off in citron fireworks. This dish allows ingredients to shine, its architecture of flavor precise but real. It's Garces at his best.
Desserts, on the other hand, not so much. "Scent of a Woman" is a clever name for a cardamom sponge cake, but the spice is so dialed down in the cake itself as well as in a cardamom-rice sauce that looks like Elmer's glue and tastes like nothing. A Cava gelee hidden inside the cake, however, managed to lock in the bubbly essence of the sparkling Spanish wine. A snowy mesa of goat cheese mousse is a fun play on sweet and savory, but some of its accents detract rather than enhance the dish. Fresh orange pops and cuts the mousse's dense cream. Olive oil caramel and candied violet are both intriguing, but only the caramel is as good in execution as it is in theory. Pumpkin is an odd choice, and not a flavor I want in March, and a gelee made from orange blossom water smells and tastes like a French hooker. Maybe that should be called "Scent of a Woman."
But hey, we can't hate. Not after a great meal like that, and not when Capogiro's Rittenhouse outpost is just across the street. Some gelato flavors (pictured): blood orange, sweet milk, tangelo, bittersweet chocolate, chrysanthemum, burnt sugar, bourbon-butterscotch, pineapple-mint, and the almighty Sicilian pistachio.
Back at Tinto, the staff is spot-on. From the hostess on down, service was professional without an arrogant bone in the collective body. Maybe because every employee from the chef de cuisine (William Zuchman) to the bussers get props playbill-style on the menu. Word on the street is that Garces is a great guy to work for. If his Tinto staff like working for him, they certainly show it in their pleasant attitudes. Even when a no-reservations couple drops a sardonic dig on the hostess about the Tinto's size, there are only smiles and grace. We want to ask the couple which rock they've been living under. This isn't Cosi. Tinto's newness plus Garces's popularity commands reservations. Doy.
With Amada and Tinto under his belt, U City's Chilango in the works, and an unnamed Latin-Thai concept happening down the road, PW wondered in a recent cover-story by Kate Kilpatrick if Garces would rule Philly's next restauant empire. Here's hoping. Because the difference between Garces and a guy like Stephen Starr is that Garces cooks--very well. Amada is great. Tinto is great. And his next two restaurants will probably also be great. Garces could open a Spanish-Uzbekistani fusion restaurant, and it also would probably be great.
Garces is also unfurling a steakhouse in Chicago. He's from there, so we'll let it slide. But don't let us find out you're shopping in NY, Jose, or we'll have to go all Fatal Attraction on you. We'll hunt you down and force-feed you Chi-Chi's. You're Philadelphia. You're ours.
Photos: Tinto, Blogalicious