26.2.06

Last night was marked by food, Part of which was tapas. What was suppose to be an evening of night snowboarding in the high country turned into a night of indulgence in every sense of the word.
Tapas comes to us from the divine country of Spain. It essentially means "cover or lid." The Spanish used bread and ham to cover their glasses of wine to keep flies and other various bugs out. It took hundreds of years for this concept, now dishes on small plates, to reach the United States. Even so, you did not see tapas in restaurants until the last thirty years. Now tapas "bars" are popping up all over the country.

Arpa was the first tapas bar that I had ever been to. My friend Ant and I met on a warm spring night and sat a quiet table outside. As I began to read the menu, I knew that I had hit the jackpot. What I dislike most about eating out (in America, especially with only one other person) is that you get one dish and a lot of it. I, myself, prefer lots of different dishes and small portions. For that, tapas delivers.

It had been almost a year since I have been back, and last night was the perfect occasion for it. One of my chums has a "virgin" palate if you will. Upon meeting this friend, I was told that he did not like seafood, had never eaten asparagus (the horror!), red velvet cake (partially forgivable), or tiramisu, among other things. With each day the list of "had never tried, but I know I do not like" went on. I felt it was my duty as an epicurean to teach this guy that real food doesn't come from a drive-thru and isn't limited to red meat and poultry.

The weather in Charlotte yesterday was quite bizarre. For being in the prime of winter, 70 didn't seem quite right. But, we were not complaining and decided to take a long stroll through center city. At the end of the walk we found ourselves at the front door of Arpa. I told him that I would order for the both of us, something very out of character for me. I like people to choose what they like and to eat what they love, but he is the exception. Because he has spent twenty six years eating the same foods with little variation, I am most always inclined to suggest, if not force him to try something new. What I love best is that he surrenders to my knowledge and complies with my orders. Most every time that we go out to eat, he makes me choose where we go. A foodie's DREAM.

So, here we were at a two top in a tapas bar, serving everything but American cuisine. When I told him what I was thinking of ordering I could see the anxiety consume him. Mussels, goat cheese, garlic shrimp, oh my!
First came the artisan bread, crusty, moist and warm. With it they served a fruity olive oil and pomegranate syrup. The syrup was dark, rich, complex and very concentrated. If you had the pleasure of going to Arpa, be sure to ask your server for extra on the side. Our server then dropped of the goat cheese, two small balls of deep friend goat cheese on top of roasted peppers, capers and drizzled honey. The combination was phenomenal. Why had I never though of pairing goat cheese with honey? Then we follow up with Gambas al Ajillo, or roasted garlic shrimp, apparently a tapas classic. It was just OK. The flavors were rich and delicious, but I think that I am getting burnt out on shrimp. I much prefer shellfish and fish. Finally, the mussels arrived, bathing in a hot tomato broth with manchego and micro basil. Recommended to us as "the best mussels" in Charlotte, my expectations were high, but I was not disappointed. They slid out of their glistening shells with ease and dissolved on my tongue like a rich gelato. The flavor of the basil and tomato broth was intense but it complimented the deep-sea richness of the mussels. My chum was more paranoid than I had ever seen him, and his hesitation made me break out in laughter. You would have though that he was meeting his death, not simply trying a jewel of the coast. He ate the first one, not saying a word, and then replied without me asking, "It's good." I already knew that, but I wanted him to try more. He finished half of the order, and with no complaint. I secretly wanted him to love it and I think that he may have. Time will only tell. Overall, I recommend eating at Arpa if you want a slow, sensual dinner. If you go, I cannot insist enough on getting the artisan bread and the mussels.

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