I had no idea what I was in for. I’d never been to Tinto, the tapas restaurant owned by superchef Jose Garces. I’d never met one of the dinner guests. So how was I to know that by the time dinner was over – 3 hilarious hours after it started – that it would be one of the best meals and some of the most fun I’d had in a long time. Everything came together. The food. The company. The service. The atmosphere. It was entertaining, and funny, and delicious. A great night all around. I mean, how can you not have a good night when you’re talking about Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland and eating lamb lollipops?
OK, before we get into reptiles and the new dinner guest – her name is Whitney – let’s just briefly talk about chef Garces. He wasn’t there that evening, but I’d met him over the phone during an interview for this story on future dining trends for Arrive. He’s an ambitious guy – he’s opened seven restaurants in Philadelphia, including Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, Village Whiskey, Garces Trading Company, and JG Domestic. He also owns Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago. He’s won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, and he won the second season of the Next Iron Chef to become an Iron Chef America on the Food Network. And yes, he’s a very good cook.
Tinto is smallish but not tiny, and urban and industrial while still being comfortable: brick walls, booths, flickering candles, iron details. One entire wall of the restaurant is decorated with a wine rack. The tables are wood. It’s a cool spot.
The menu is divided into six little sections, where you can choose among charcuterie, cheeses, snacks, little sandwiches, things on sticks, soups, salads and entrees of fish, vegetables or meat. You can also do a chef’s tasting menu, if you like. When our guest Whitney told us she was considering the tasting menu, but she quite likes to get a bunch of things and just share then, it was a sign that the evening was off to a very good start indeed.
We started with smoky almonds and a couple of slices of manchego.
I think we were still engaging in polite conversation during these courses; we were not yet to the point where Whitney announced that her father, Clyde, turned a roadside attraction in Pennsylvania into the country’s leading reptile zoo, and that if you ever see a reptile on a late night (or heck, even daytime) TV show, it’s probably her dad that got it there.
Here is our next course, arugula salad with serrano, fried goat cheese, mission figs and almonds.
And these are the fried zucchini blossoms, a special that night, which I could not resist.
By the time we got to the duck canape, with serrano and a cherry, yes, we were fully into the reptile conversation, and had also learned that Whitney does an excellent impression of her mom.
We’d never met Whitney’s mom, but we felt as if we knew her pursed lips, her gentle tone and her wry wit. I think we could pick her out of a crowd if we had to.
Basque mussels with frites. Indeed.
Pulpo – or octopus – with confit potatoes and lemon powder:
We all were quite into the hysterics by now, which made enjoying this dish – an artichoke pasta – very easy. It may have been our favorite all night.
Or perhaps the lobster over brioche with a crazy-good truffle sauce could be called our favorite? It was rich as Croesus.
One of our last dishes of the evening was the butifarra, a sausage, served with lentils and pedro ximinez.
Rustic, simple and good.
It shared the table with the trio of lamb-eggplant lollipops, which were wrapped in bacon and served in a shotglass filled with an onion cream-sherry sauce so delicious we asked if we could drink it.
The answer was yes. So we did that.
We didn’t think we could eat dessert, but they brought it anyway, so we found a way.
An orange parfait:
A gateaux Basque with berries;
All were incredible, but I kept going back for just one more forkful of the cake.
Here is an hard-to-make-out photo of the evening’s funny girl, Whitney:
This is the kind of dinner you always hope for, folks. When we go back to Tinto, it won’t be exactly the same, but I know the food will hold up its end of the bargain for sure.
The 411 on Tinto: An urban, modern space with lots of exposed brick that serves as the setting for a tabletopful of delicious, creative Basque-style tapas, which run the gamut from simple (smoked almonds) to layered and complex (lamb and eggplant wrapped in bacon served in a shotglass with a sherry-onion sauce, but is always delicious and a lot of fun, too. 114 s. 20th st., Philadelphia. 215-665-9150. tintorestaurant.com.
And on the way out, a look at Village Whiskey, another Jose Garces restaurant, right next door.