DRINKS, FOOD AND FRIENDS AT TAPAS 218
Y ou’ve probably heard the buzz. Tapas 218 on Court Avenue NW has arrived with a whole new ethnic style for Stark County diners. Tapas, a Spanish version of appetizers, are at the heart of a cuisine characterized by sharing small plates, socializing and enjoying wine among friends. From the mouth of owner Tony Ly, the idea of tapas is to encourage communal dining. Without having a whole dinner in front of you, passing smaller plates around the table allows for more conversation.
Share my food, you gasp? I realize the thought alone is terrifying for some. So to appreciate the full effect of this experience, you must do three things: 1) abandon the “my plate is mine” mentality, 2) resolve to taste something new, and 3) bring friends—the more the merrier. This is a perfect way to eat with a group and, might I add, best enjoyed with wine, sangria or even … bourbon?
Tapas 218 has two floors with distinct vibes: first, take a trip downstairs for a pre-dinner drink. If you’re into bourbon, you’ll be pleased to see more than 40 brands in what is now Stark County’s only bourbon bar. (Not sure what the connection is between bourbon and Spanish tapas, but we appreciate the gesture nonetheless.)
Bourbon varieties are available in 1- or 2-ounce pours, and in original cocktails such as the Black and Blue Highball, a mix of blackberry-infused bourbon, blueberries and ginger ale. You’ll want to linger here all night, but when you’re ready to eat, head upstairs. There, the scene is more formal, but still casual with low lighting, warm colors and open ceilings.
There’s also a side room that offers semiprivate dining.
So, we get it. We have to share our food. But what are we sharing, exactly?
For starters, I can assure you there are flavors here to please everyone—carnivores, vegetarians, heat-seekers, you name it. The menu is separated into three categories: Sopa y Ensalada (soup and salad), Tapas, and Platos Grande (which, yes, are larger portions, but still “shareable” like the rest).
Marisco, a coconut and seafood broth with mussels, shrimp and scallops, is excellent. The broth alone is incredibly flavorful, and even when ordering a cup, it arrives absolutely full of seafood. Reminiscent of something you might find in Thai cooking, could this be a subtle reminder from Tony not to forget about Basil down the street?
Share my food, you gasp? I realize the thought alone is terrifying for some. So to appreciate the full effect of this experience, you must do three things: 1) abandon the “my plate is mine” mentality, 2) resolve to taste something new, and 3) bring friends—the more the merrier.
Moving on to the Tapas menu, start off with the meat and cheese plate. Sounds ordinary, but this rendition has a Spanish point of view that’s worth sampling. Serrano ham meets salty and rich Manchego cheese, alongside pita chips, and a garnish of olives and pickles. Definitely order the large version because this will fly off the plate.
Another favorite is ceviche, served in a long-stem martini glass. Ceviche, meaning “cooked by citrus” is made of seafood (in this case, shrimp) combined with onion, jalapeno and avocado. It delivers a light and refreshing flavor profile, and doubles as a topping for corn tortilla chips served on the side. Fried olives are a fun, pop-able snack that complement nicely.
And don’t dare miss the empanadas, a half-moon dough pocket filled with seasoned ground beef, onion, potato and peppers, a recipe passed down from the chefs’ (two brothers) mom. For Platos Grande, the mega-portioned seafood paella is a hearty “one pot” dish that incorporates chorizo (spicy Spanish sausage), saffron rice, diced peppers and a slew of seafood.
You’ll see chorizo used frequently on this menu. While some of the preparations leave the sausage a bit dry, the spicy flavors pair blissfully with rice, potatoes, eggs and a host of other ingredients.
We also liked the fish tacos. The grilled tilapia is mild, but when combined with pico de gallo, red cabbage and “extra feta” (requested by my infamously off-menu-ordering friend), it’s delicious. It’s rumored the chefs will do calamari tacos, too, though technically they aren’t on the menu.
Side note: I would love to see a smaller tortilla used for easier sharing, and also corn instead of flour—seems more authentic to me.
That leaves one area I haven’t touched on yet, Postre: dessert.
There are two items that you simply must try—neither lasted more than five minutes on our table, despite the fact that we had been eating ourselves silly for the last hour.
First: flan, what I lovingly refer to as Mexican creme brulee. Flan is a custard, in this case served with a luscious caramel sauce. It’s creamy, appropriately sweet and melts in your mouth. Another hit is Churros Espanolas, described as a “Spanish doughnut.”
On the West Coast, churros are readily available in food carts, usually covered in cinnamon and sugar. They’ve got nothing on Tapas 218’s variety. These are crisp, slightly sweet, stuffed with a cream filling and drizzled with caramel sauce. Let’s face it, you can’t go wrong with fried dough, but this preparation is oh-so-right.
Now I know what you’re thinking—empanadas, churros, flan? This menu sounds more south-of-the-border than Spanish. Please, ask me if I care. I adore the mix of styles. If the chefs decided to go even further into “fusion” territory by mixing in other cuisines, I would be thrilled.
In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to push the creative boundaries; the menu needs time to mature, which means working on pairings, garnishes, expanding to different sides (we all loved the seasoned potatoes, but they appear on too many plates). Rotating the menu monthly or by season would be smart.
Other bugs to be worked out include servers with limited knowledge of the menu, somewhat ordinary presentation of some dishes, and an occasional overcooked mussel.
In the meantime, savor this new style of cuisine in Canton. I like the way Tony thinks—he envisions downtown Canton’s becoming not just an art district, but a destination for foodies, too.
Bringing this concept to downtown Canton looks like the beginning of a sexy new fling of art and food. Foodie District—I like where this is going.