On a warm evening in late September, I
dined under a canopy of tree branches in the lovely garden of
Allioli, a Spanish restaurant in the heart of hip Williamsburg.
I sipped sherry and chatted with a friend about things both important
and inconsequential. Candles on the tables cast a glow. Between
us we passed small plates of pungently flavored tapas (also called
antojitos, Spanish for "little whims") and let the
last warm, end-of-season breezes soothe us.
The evening was so right in every way, that now, when I think back to it, I allow the memory to unfold slowly - the salty olives; the raisin-like sweetness of the sherry; how soft the air felt against our cheeks; the pleasure of good company.
Allioli (named for a Spanish-style garlic sauce) has been open for just 18 months, but Moni Ozgilik, who owns the restaurant with Ayse Telgeren, attributes its popularity to "a sophisticated diner who has traveled more, seen Spain, and brought their interest in Spanish culture back to the United States." Ozgilik describes the cuisine of chef Diego Gonzalez and pastry chef Humberto Sanchez as "traditional Spanish cooking with a contemporary flavor."
Served in sharable tapas portions, meant to be eaten as you would hors d’oeuvres - a little of this; a little of that - four tapas make a light dinner for two. Chef Gonzalez’s "little whims," which are about double the size of a standard appetizer, are an intriguing blend of sharp and delicate, spicy and savory tastes. Garlic plays an important part in the seasoning, amplifying the oceanic flavors of mussels in one dish and the sweetness of prawns in another. While the delicate flavors of fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese and artichokes get oomph from rich slices of rare filet mignon.
There are two compelling dishes on Gonzalez’s tapas roundup. New Zealand mussels (gorgeous with their green-tinged shells and apricot-colored flesh) are served in a crisp Albarino white wine sauce made pleasantly bitter with a touch of saffron. Crisp slices of grilled country bread, dabbed with garlicky allioli rimmed the bowl - perfect for soaking up that broth.
Another delightful fish-based tapas were the fresh, plump anchovies. Firm to the bite and pleasantly salty, the fish were served tangled with strips of mild, oil-marinated red piquillos peppers over slices of house-made buffalo mozzarella. Sour, pickled caper berries sat like a crown over the fish. Served on a golden yellow plate, the silvery sardines, red piquillos and caper berries - which mimic the appearance of tiny green lanterns - were as stunning in appearance as they were a delight to eat.
Less exciting, yet still satisfying, were the chewy slices of toasted bread topped with a puree of artichokes, manchego cheese (a mellow, aged Spanish cheese made from ewe’s milk) and thin slices of filet mignon. It is a lovely dish; all the flavors harmonious; and worked as the perfect foil to the one-two punch of the sardines.
A sea bass with olives cooked en papillote (wrapped in parchment paper and baked) was frankly, a yawn. The olives had a one-dimensional saltiness that did little to enhance the delicate flavor of the fish.
Pair the tapas with a selection from Allioli’s well-priced list of Spanish wines, sherries, ports (the Warre’s Otima, an aged tawny port, is spectacular) or the crisp, not overly sweet, house-white sangria.
Sanchez does a playful take on Mel i Mato, a traditional Catalan dessert that features a piquant goat cheese mousse topped with honey. In Sanchez’s rendition, the goat cheese mousse resembles a pert marshmallow in the center of a bowl. Refreshingly tart, with the consistency of freshly whipped cream, the mousse is surrounded by a puddle of ruby hued muscatel wine that is deepened with the flavor of cinnamon. Slices of slightly chewy quince, (a tart, pear-like fruit) and sweet cooked grapes, further enhance the complex sauce. It is one of those desserts that seem utterly original and an instant classic.
The molten chocolate souffle makes its appearance on Sanchez’s dessert list. Called a "surprise" chocolate souffle, the surprise comes in the form of a cava sauce and a splash of Balsamic vinegar. (Cava is a sparkling Spanish wine.) The sauce, with its sharp note of vinegar, is a refreshing change from this dessert’s usual pairing of vanilla creme anglaise. Chocolate lovers, who haven’t maxed out on this particular creation, (it’s on every menu from here to suburban New Jersey) will love it.
On most evenings, there’s a quiet bar scene in the front of the restaurant - mainly artists drinking and enjoying the tapas. The two earth colored dining rooms, made moody from shadows cast by the candle lit wall sconces, will provide a romantic setting until the garden opens again in the spring.
And, for those who won’t admit to missing the strolling guitarist playing "Lady of Spain," a flamenco dancer comes in once a week and burns up the floorboards.
Allioli at 291 Grand St. (between Roebling and Havermeyer streets) in Williamsburg accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Tapas are priced $5-$32 with most dishes $5-$16. For reservations, call (718) 218-7338.