This is a tale of two tapas bars, and they are about as alike as any two tapas dishes. Both have opened within 456 feet of each another downtown, which could be a sad coincidence for one of them.
Taberna Tapas Diner was the first to open. It is owned by the same team that operated the "eh" Mexican restaurant in that same spot, Guajillos. Apparently they did not do their homework because the server I chatted up (one of the sweetest, most professional and earnest I have ever come across) said they had no idea that a tapas joint had been in the works— seemingly for eons—just down the block.
She said the food would speak for itself, but unfortunately it spoke in half-truths. Of the nine dishes I ordered, only eight made it to the table, and I was charged for them all. (I ordered everything at once rather than in true tapas fashion, a few at a time, because Taberna was set to close by 8 that evening.)
Of those I sampled, many were quite serviceable but a few were complete failures. Those that sang were the salads and true small plates, such as the dates stuffed with pecans and manchego—a Spanish cheese—and wrapped in bacon. The bacon was appropriately thin, so none was left partly raw. The filling burst in my mouth, the dates incredibly sweet but tempered nicely by the savory elements both inside and out. For $5 there were four dates, but the flavor was well worth it.
The salads were also well balanced and decidedly Spanish in nature. Having lived in Spain in a previous life, I immediately identified with the increased acidity in both the summer tomato with red onions, basil and zamorano cheese, and the arugula with jamón serrano (a type of dry-cured Spanish ham), almonds, goat cheese and honey. They were light but densely flavored, the tomatoes all heirloom and of varying colors, the goat cheese and honey delicately balancing the bitter arugula and salty ham.
Even the patatas bravas—fried potatoes with aioli and chile sauce) which I could tell were not twice-fried, were decent, though some of the potatoes were not cooked completely through. The aioli was simply jarred mayo doctored up with garlic, but it was tasty. The brava sauce, however, was disappointing. My server aptly referred to it as "spicy ketchup." (I had to order both sauces together; they are listed on the menu as separate dishes, which is sacrilege in Spain.)
And that's where things started to get dismal.
It seemed that as the price points rose, the quality of the dishes sank. Case in point: the "paella," which was nothing like what my host abuelita made me in Madrid on Sunday afternoons those years ago. And even though the menu refers to "Taberna's nontraditional elements of paella, a Spanish rice meal," this loophole does not make its version of paella worth paying for.
As my dining companion noted, the paella tasted more like Rice-A-Roni, and at $12, it was the most expensive thing we ordered. And since our server (a different one, nice, but ill-informed and inexperienced) said the Valencia paella—chorizo and pulled chicken, shrimp, pisto and saffron rice— was the way to go, I can only wonder what the other, less traditional options were like. The Valencia was nothing more than a pile of meat atop a pile of squash atop a pile of rice. The flavors were not ill-tasting, but the messy dish lacked the distinguishing tastes, a rustic earthiness, that a true paella imparts.
I also tried the grilled shrimp flatbread for $9, which came with spinach, shallot, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and manchego. The flavor possibilities for this dish were exponential, but it turned out to be a soggy, pita-like concoction in which the shrimp was too heavy for the rest of the sparse ingredients.
For dessert we ordered the only option on the menu: a molten chocolate cake with whipped cream. It's pretty hard to make this very un-Spanish-like dessert taste bad, and it didn't, but for my friend, this was the highlight of her meal—sad for a tapas restaurant.
While we dined, I know at least one couple came to Taberna because down the street, they could not get a table at Mateo Bar de Tapas. Vin Rouge's executive chef Matt Kelly had been working on this project for quite a while—and it shows.
To start, Mateo has a decidedly more Spanish vibe. Rustic and distinguished, Spain is a dark but still warm, less ebullient version of her Italian neighbors. The decor summoned that spirit with its patina mirrors and sparse use of color.
My confidence in the professionalism of the staff was established when the server suggested ordering a few items to start, then letting the menu guide me, as was my inclination. She also said that Chef Josh Decarolis does not aspire to recreate traditional tapas dishes but to interpret them. I was a bit apprehensive . . . but then I started eating.
My dining companion and I began with the buñuelo, an oxtail marmalade donut that was like a hip beef Wellington, as well as the ensalada de manchego y manzana, my favorite Spanish salad. This version featured Bibb lettuce and orange with a sherry-membrillo vinaigrette, imparting each bite with a splash of citrus.
Luckily we ordered the patatas bravas early. I used the leftover sauce, which I had to refrain from licking off the plate, on the fried okra as well. It was like being in Spain, both brava and aioli on the creamy and crisp potatoes, but with a deeper, barbecue-like flavor.
We decided to order a few heavier items next, trying the albóndigas, meatballs with chorizo and Sea Island red stew, along with the mejillones, mussels steamed with roasted tomatoes and chorizo. Rich and complex, both were served very hot.
Alas, a few items did fall a bit flat.
First to flounder was the pan de tomate. This interpretation of a Spanish classic, which is usually toast rubbed with tomato and quite light (we hoped to sop up sauces with it), was freighted with heavy Italian bread and a glob of zesty but overpowering tomato sauce. It interfered with my sauce plans, and for that I was a bit annoyed.
Mateo had run out of the espresso beans needed to make my favorite coffee, café con leche, but we still tried two desserts: flan and churros—a Spanish doughnut. The flan was the ideal texture and temperature, slightly cool and creamy, and came with a bit of extra sea salt and olive oil, a flavor I found interesting; my husband was less impressed.
The churros, however, were disappointingly cold and hollow, though the accompanying chocolate dip hit the mark; my husband ate it with a spoon.
As one local restaurateur said to me a few days before dining at Mateo, this place will probably be written up in The New York Times–and I agree.
Taberna, on the other hand, is awaiting its liquor license, so for now you can bring your own wine and forgo the corking fee. If you stick to ordering the basics and bring your own bottle, this could be a sweet, affordable date. If the menu gains some consistency, perhaps chucking the larger dishes altogether, downtown Durham will be home to two tapas restaurants.
If not, there will be only one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A tale of two tapas bars."