Coca con Seta arrived at the table. A blend of meaty, sauteed mushrooms, black truffle, pickled onion, melted Tetilla cow’s cheese from Galicia and a zigzag squizzle of aioli flavored with gently spiced guindilla, a chile pepper typical of Basque cookery, covered a round, cracker-thin flatbread. I’m unaccustomed to a pizza-sized, cracker-thin flatbread as a tapa. Nonetheless, my dinner companions and I tore off chucks of the ‘shroomy-cheesy cracker, sipped earthy Rioja wine and it was fine.
Yet something was missing for me.
A chef once told me that he wished dining critics would go in blind. He wanted restaurant reviewers not to have read what others had written — whether in major publications or in crowd-sourced review forums like Yelp. Mainly, he wanted them to experience the place with an open mind.
I thought about that chef’s comments after eating at the Iberian Pig in Decatur. Though I hadn’t read reviews of the restaurant, I questioned the extent of my open mind. Having lived in Spain, I had experienced its tapas culture. Did I wish to impose that on the Iberian Pig too much?
The Iberian Pig has been around since 2009. It’s an anchor restaurant in Decatur Square. It calls its menu of small plates “Spanish inspired.” The portions are generous. The staff hustles to keep crowds happy. The concept has been successful enough that the Castellucci Hospitality Group has duplicated it at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and is plunking down $2.5 million to bring it to Buckhead this winter. It made a formidable move this past spring hiring 20-plus-year veteran chef Jay Swift — owner of the now-defunct 4th & Swift and former partner with Noble Fin in Peachtree Corners — to helm the Decatur kitchen.
When I ate recently there, it became evident how far tapas have evolved since I became acquainted with that culture while living in Spain in the early ’90s and visiting in the years since.
I’m used to tapas as something uncomplicated, like a couple of boquerones, anchovies marinated in olive oil and vinegar, that I might enjoy with a gin and tonic or Asturian cider at one bar. An hour or so later, the group progresses to a different bar. The next round could be a slice of tortilla española, an egg and potato omelet, with a lager such as Mahou or, my favorite, a clara — equal parts beer and a lemon tonic water called Casera. So on and so forth, toothpick portion after toothpick portion, parading in and out of bars, perhaps throwing a nightclub in the mix. This is “la marcha.” But to march around from 11 p.m. until 4 a.m. in Madrid with an ever-growing body of friends, you need sustenance.
Tapas in the U.S. have become a code name for small, shareable plates. Back then and over there, I didn’t do much sharing, unless it was olives. I didn’t pay much for a nibble. And none of what I nibbled on was fussy.
Unfussy dishes are the ones I most enjoyed at the Iberian Pig. Ham and cheese croquettes, new since Swift’s arrival, are simple pleasures. As are basic patatas bravas, thick wedges of twice-fried potatoes – and the “inspired” part: a drizzle of aioli holding the smoky-sweet flavors of Spanish paprika.
Albondigas were moist and flavorful. Packed neither too lightly nor too tightly, these pork meatballs soaked in the flavors of a sauce made from the mild Cascabel Mexican chile pepper and manchego cheese. The sauce was so delicious that I ordered a side of bread to sop it up and clutched onto that clay bowl until the last bit of liquid was gone. On a return visit, I rushed to order the albondigas — and, thinking ahead, a side of bread. But out came what looked and tasted like a rush job: meatballs that were craggy and uneven in shape; a sauce that sat barely touched, unworthy of the pile of toasted bread so slicked with oil that the slices wouldn’t have soaked up any liquid anyway.
The potatoes and meatballs are two of a handful of dishes at the Iberian Pig whose sauces, foams (as some are dubbed but didn’t look as such) or liquid finishes are made with cheese. Spain certainly has its standout cheeses, but it’s more common to celebrate their nuances as freshly sliced slivers — which this restaurant does offer in cheese and charcuterie plates — not put them under heat and melt them.
I need to get over that discomfort with the break from traditional, because taste matters most, and those cheese-inflected sauces tasted far superior to others. Yuzu, black garlic aioli and veal jus were more like muddy waters for Georgia shrimp in the Gambas en Escabeche. Creative? Sure. But there was no cohesion to that sauce.
Octopus was a better seafood option. This slightly composed presentation has a seared tentacle resting on top of a scattering of french fries. Dabs of lemon aioli and a couple of orange segments did not advance the dish. Mainly, though, I wish the octopus had been more tender and less rubbery.
I think I would have relished the Oyster BLT Pintxo — a playful mingle of Spanish and American cuisines that brings a foursome of fried oysters, each sandwiched between a cherry tomato half, Benton’s bacon and a slice of bread and held together with a toothpick — if the oysters themselves didn’t have such a rusty flavor. I prefer mine briny or creamy or springy; these were copper.
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That’s a matter of personal preference, though, not execution. The beef tenderloin for the Solomillo was delightfully tender, as was slow-braised pork cheek in the Huevo con Trufa. Pork tenderloin was tough, as if cooked too long. If a dish of fried morcilla (blood sausage) with white beans hadn’t suffered from dual dryness, it would have had me pining for more Spanish peasant vittles.
Time to wet the whistle. Not with a glass of the house sangria or the deluxe version with brandy; both are hollow. Instead, enjoy wine. The restaurant has a nice, succinct by-the-glass selection, the majority of which hails from Spain. I was thoroughly content with the Dehesa la Granja, a lush, full-bodied Tempranillo with blackberry notes from the Castilla y León region.
A sip. Mmm.
Now back to those ham and cheese croquetas. They are among the handful of dishes that Swift has introduced since joining the Iberian Pig. A regime change takes time. It also takes an open mind to be receptive to something like the whole suckling pig that Swift offers every Wednesday, but people are coming for his cochinillo in droves.
Look around at the packed house. The liveliness of the Iberian Pig is a reminder that tapas are a social affair no matter which side of the pond you’re on. One night, a group of eight or more sat around a nearby table. The party turned up a notch when a server came around with a porrón, pouring wine from the long spout of the glass pitcher directly into eager open mouths. There was laughter. I think someone fell off her chair. Something definitely broke. The marcha went on. I kind of wanted to join them.
Overall rating: 1 of 4 stars (good)
Food: Spanish small plates
Service: friendly and efficient
Best dishes: meatballs, ham and cheese croquettes, Solomillo (beef tenderloin), patatas bravas
Vegetarian selections: beet and strawberry salad, tomato salad, broccolini, patatas bravas, mushroom flatbread
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Children: not recommended
Parking: nearby street or paid parking lots
MARTA station: Decatur
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium, loud during peak service hours
Address, phone: 121 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-371-8800