Dining Out

Little Bites, Big Buzz

Check out Downtown's first tapas bar

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Flan y Ajo reminds me of the venerable Al Forno when it first opened in its original location at 7 Steeple Street. It was 1980, and Al Forno was probably the most exciting thing that happened that year in Providence. In that tiny space, now expanded and occupied by New Rivers, food the likes of which we had never tasted before came out of the kitchen run by a young couple, Johanne Killeen and George Germon. Everybody was talking about Al Forno and its new take on Italian cuisine.

Thirty-one years later, we have an even smaller restaurant creating quite a buzz. This time it’s all about tapas, the tantalizing appetizers or snacks in Spanish cuisine. Making the tapas is a modern-day young couple, Siobhan Maria Etxeberria and Diego Luis Perez. Translated, Flan y Ajo means flan (a sweet custard dessert) and garlic, and together the name represents the sweet and savory tapas served there. Siobhan and Diego experienced a great deal of true tapas in their travels through Spain. Diego learned how to make all the food on the menu from his father, who was born there.

Like Al Forno back in the day, Flan y Ajo has a growing number of fans who are passionate about this new restaurant. So much so that some are critical of this diamond in the rough, asking how dare they take up precious floor space with an old pinball machine? (A quarter will get you two plays.) Space is at a premium. There are no tables in this true tapas restaurant. In nice weather, there are a couple of wrought iron tables out front on the sidewalk, but we can forget about that until spring. Inside there is a tall, almost too tall, counter where you can sip on Spanish coffee and watch the food being prepared. Seating is limited to a few stools and six gold cushioned window seats along the plate-glass storefront. Spanish tiles decorate one wall. Slightly bizarre Spanish artwork hangs on the other walls. Around the perimeter of the small room is another counter, really more of a ledge, with just enough room for small plates of food and beverages.

As for those beverages, world travelers will appreciate the Mexican cola and Italian sodas on the menu. This is a BYOB establishment, with a wine shop right next door if you leave your bottle at home.

If you’re there with friends, and drinks are more important than food, you might just want to graze on the Olivas ($3 to $5). That includes tiny green Manzanilla olives with a mild, smoky flavor, and marinated olives hand stuffed with anchovies.

We stopped in on a Thursday night with two dear friends who had been to Flan y Ajo and gave it a rave review. The most expensive tapas on the menu are priced at $8, so we asked Siobhan to bring us everything on the menu, two or three plates at a time. Some dishes were so extraordinary, such as the Tortilla Española and the Gambas al Ajillo, we ordered second servings. All these “snacks” added up to a delicious dinner, and quite affordable since we brought two bottles of exquisite white wine to go with the food.

My first bite was of the Piquillos Rellenos ($4). The petite Spanish peppers were stuffed with tuna, onions, capers and the clean, sharp herbal taste of lemon verbena. Next came the Pa amb Tomaquet ($2.50), slices of rustic bread covered with a tomato-garlic spread. The refreshing Gazpacho ($3.50) is the classic Andalucian soup, made with finely chopped tomatoes and vegetables, served cold in a large shot glass.

The aforementioned Tortilla Española ($3) would also be great at breakfast. An egg is fried with onions and potatoes in olive oil and served over more of that rustic bread. The Gambas al Ajillo ($6.50) is a generous serving of medium-size shrimp sizzling in garlic.

Winning the “to die for” accolade were the Croquettas ($5), Spanish croquettes made with jamon (Spanish ham) the night we were there. On another night they might be made with chicken. These deep-fried bundles of savory ingredients are encased in breadcrumbs for a slight crunch with every bite. In a nice contrast to this, the Patatas Bravas ($4) were roasted potatoes in a spicy sauce.

The Boquerones ($3) were slivers of Mediterrnean anchovies served on house-made olive oil crackers. Most people either love or hate anchovies, which are brown in color when served in a Caesar salad or on pizza. But after fresh anchovies are marinated in a bath of salt water and then vinegar, the tiny fish fillets turn white. Because of that marinade, the Boquerones do not go well with wine. Beer would be a much better pairing.

Another dish that we politely fought over was the Embutidos ($6.50), cured meats including thinly sliced Spanish ham and spicy sausages.

My favorite dish was the Queso, or cheese platter, again a rather generous offering of Spanish cheeses, including an eight-month-old slightly piquant Manchego, rosemary Manchego (coated in chopped rosemary), an intensely flavored Valdeon blue cheese, and P’tit Basque with its earthy, nutty flavor. These cheeses and others can also be ordered individually ($3 to $5).

The authentic menu changes slightly from day to day. On a subsequent visit, I was tempted by the Higos con Jamon ($4.50), or fresh figs stuffed with Spanish ham, and the raisin-fennel bread topped with truly delicious membrillo (quince jam made in house) and Manchego cheese ($1.50). But Siobhan assured me that about eight dishes, the staples of a tapas restaurant, are always available. Dishes such as the Albondigas (Spanish meatballs) are on the daily menu, although some days they are made with beef and other times with lamb.

For postre (that’s dessert), of course there are flans ($3). The lavender flan is fragrant; the saffron and nutmeg flan is beyond moist. They all go well with the Spanish coffees ($1.50 to $2.50): café solo or espresso; café cortado or espresso with a splash of milk; café con leche made with equal amounts of espresso and steamed milk; and café bombon, or espresso with condensed milk.

Flan y Ajo is also open for lunch, serving bocadillos, or Spanish sandwiches.
My only complaint was the lack of tables, but that might be down the line for this buzz-worthy eatery. Siobhan smiled when she said, “I think that’s coming… Yes, that might be coming.”

Linda Beaulieu is the author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook, available at stores throughout the state.