I don't believe I was ever a card-carrying member of the short-lived tapas revolution of the early nineties (or the equally arbitrary Belgian moules-frites boomlet that followed). But I have dim, pre-millennial memories of trendy downtown figures tap-dancing their way through the side streets of SoHo and the Village, filling the night air with horsey laughter, leaving empty sangría glasses and toothpicks in their wake. During the early Clinton years, the tapeador (the artful Spanish term for a tapas fanatic) was still wreathed in a kind of exclusionary hipness. In their purest form, tapas are elaborate party food, after all -- an exotic culinary excuse to have a really good time. But times change, and in this brightly airbrushed, consumerist era, the latest, happening tapería in town is a spot called Pipa (literal translation: "good time"). Pipa opened its doors last month, not in some ex-meatpacking space along Tenth Avenue but among the curling chandeliers and baroque TV cabinets of the downtown furnishings store ABC Carpet & Home.
Pipa's head tapeador, chef Douglas Rodriguez, has a knack for this kind of odd commercial synergy. Less than a year ago, the precocious Miami chef (he had his first Manhattan success with Patria, at age 29) opened Chicama in the bowels of the ABC building, on 19th Street and lower Broadway. This successful and inventive restaurant introduced legions of shoppers to Nuevo Latino delights like varieties of mixtos from the seviche bar, suckling pig, and Peruvian hen stew. Rodriguez's latest start-up is located, for maximum crossover traffic, across the hall from Chicama, between a flower stand and the ABC food hall. The space once housed a faux-Victorian tea parlor, and a few of those moldy knickknacks remain. Flocks of chandeliers and satin pillows are supposed to create a dashing, gypsy effect, although the room's dark, brooding interior makes it feel more like something off the set of Xena: Warrior Princess.
Happily, Rodriguez's menu exhibits a lighter touch. It's organized, for the tapas-challenged, into manageable categories, like pescaditos (little fishes), rellenos (stuffed things), and tentáculos (tentacles). In its purest form, the tapería is a bar, and tapas are elaborate bar food, elaborately displayed. If you're angling for the authentic experience, you can sit at the commodious stone bar or at a long, communal table, and if you're marooned in one of the banquettes, eager swarms of waiters will keep the food coming at a hectic pace. On my first visit, our table was blitzed with an impressive wave of platos before we'd even arranged our shopping bags around our chairs. First came complimentary sherries, followed by a dish of salt-cured ham and manchego cheese, then crispy cocas flat breads laced with mushrooms and figs. Wailing flamenco ballads blasted over the sound system, and soon our jaws were dancing like castanets. "Geez," cried one happy shopper, "this is the best serrano ham I've ever had at a furniture store."
Ditto the soothing garlic soup (loaded with shrimps and specks of almond), the toothpick-skewered anchovies in caper rémoulade, and the bowl of savory lamb meatballs, which you crush into a thick red-wine sauce with your spoon. Tapas purists will quibble that old standards, like tortilla española, aren't even on Rodriguez's dinner menu (although they're served at Sunday brunch), and that dishes like a delicious duck salad (lunchtime only, with a sweet sherry vinaigrette) and the cocas flat breads aren't tapas at all. So what? The best of four luncheon sandwiches was an un-tapas-size helping of veal brisket, smothered in mushrooms and caramelized onions. My favorite of the cocas was the pizzalike Pipa, a savory layering of chorizo and oven-dried tomatoes, dusted with rosemary and manchego cheese. Rodriguez's signature oysters are lightly fried, resting on a bed of banana, with a puff of horseradish foam on top. They were snapped up so quickly by one group of unruly diners, I had to order them again.
That's the frustrating pleasure of tapería dining, of course. Pipa's menu isn't as deep or complex as Chicama's next door, but then, tapas are more of a social choice than a gastronomic one. Empty dishes and wine bottles pile up in such a blur, it's easy to forget what you've ordered, or whether you've actually eaten at all. But if you miss out the first time, reorder the chef's impressively fluffy paella, or the beef tournedos, perfectly seared and peppery around the edges, in a Cabrales-cheese sauce. I vaguely recall a satisfying bite of veal-tripe stew, and a row of baby octopuses, expertly grilled and doused in capers and olive vinaigrette. My chicken empanadas (I think it was chicken) were dry as prunes, though, and the mustard aïoli on a helping of overbaked patatas had the consistency of crank-case oil. A dish of baby eels (looking like garden grubs drowned in olive oil) was too salty to justify its $18 price tag, and our table could have used a good basket of bread to mop our plates, instead of greasy toast.
Pipa's selection of Spanish wines has a hodgepodge quality to it, although there are enough good Albariños on the list to take the edge off most of these little complaints. The house sangrías "lacked bottom," according to one snooty sangría connoisseur, although an elaborate selection of sherries (try the sweet Pedro Ximenez with your after-dinner cheese) will steer you toward dessert. There are only three dessert choices, and you can't go too wrong with any of them. The cool Almendra mousse cake tasted soothingly of oranges, and the crema catalana was a softer, vanilla-custard version of crème caramel, with a comforting glaze of burnt sugar on top. Successive tables demolished multi-orders of Rodriguez's golden fried churros (with hot chocolate-fondue sauce), even though one batch appeared to have been mistakenly covered with salt instead of sugared cinnamon. Not that it really mattered. So this isn't Barcelona. But the night was young, the wine was flowing, and it was good to be a tapeador, even in a strange and overpriced furniture store.