an Italian name to a Spanish-inspired restaurant-wine bar
with French- and Asian-inspired cookery is about as all-American
as a restaurant can get these days. The old models, while
sturdy, have been explored to a fare-thee-well, and people
seem to enjoy taking more charge of their food choices.
you can do when the plates are smaller and the prices are
lower. And the wine keeps flowing.
opened a few months ago in Latham Farms, not far from owner
Craig Allen’s other enterprise, All Star Wine and Spirits.
With former Justin’s chef Chris Sisinni helming the kitchen,
it was a safe bet that the varied menu would be nicely crafted,
and I was even more pleased than I expected.
play a crucial part in a restaurant like this. After all,
what is tapas? Better to ask, what was tapas? It’s a Spanish
word meaning “cover,” thought to have originated as a covering
to keep bugs out of drinks—or to cover the aroma of lousy
evolved into a handful of small garlicky dishes offered alongside
the drinks in a Spanish bar or restaurant. As the concept
spread, particularly into this country, it grew to mean just
about anything presented on a small plate. But the essence
of tapas, to my palate, at least, is piquancy. It’s a small
amount of food that needs to work quickly and satisfyingly.
Santo, the menu is broken into three categories of tapas:
traditional, Vin Santo and “small plates menu.” The last-named
is the most ambiguous. Think of a typical restaurant entrée—entrée
item itself, vegetable, starch—and divide the plate into its
you’re dining in a strip mall, which isn’t always regarded
as a classy destination, once the heavy double doors of Vin
Santo close behind you, you’re in a different place entirely.
The place has been designed and furnished with an Italian
flavor, with a wall mural suggesting a Venetian byway and
earth-toned tables and room dividers.
or sections, really, divide between a main area and a cluster
of tall bar tables. I tried them both, and can recommend that
any ambitious eating be conducted in the main area—plates
pile up quickly on the bar tables, even though the empties
are quickly cleared by the attentive servers.
also raw-bar seating, although nobody took advantage of these
during either of my visits. That may be because the primo
spot is a long table that faces the kitchen area, the seats
of which seem always full. And which give you a good view
of Chef Sisinni at work, overseeing the little sculptures
he and his staff send to the tables.
the ahi tuna tartare ($13), an easy-to-eat compote pairing
sushi-grade tuna with pickled ginger, topped with a pleasing
combo of avocado and wasabi. And there are apple slices and
crisped wontons to complete the dish. Not enough to satisfy
a person with my appetite as a complete meal, but a terrific
companion to a glass of wine, which is how I used it, pairing
it with a Spanish blanc de blanc.
about 400 wines to choose among—including half-bottles, giant
bottles, sake, sherry and wines by the glass—not only will
you find something to enjoy but you also can (and should)
design your own tasting.
it was a sparkler to start, and a bowl of assorted olives
($5) along with a plate of romano-pepper crackers topped with
tapenade ($4) to inspire us to choose more. Something to go
with a glass of sturdy Capestrano Trebiano ($7).
the tuna was satisfying; to that we added chorizo and seafood
paella ($12), where the rice truly was the star ingredient,
rich with juices, dressed with calamari bits and a couple
of rich sausage slices.
wasn’t destined to spend much time with that dish. My daughter
ordered rillette of duck ($10), expecting to see a familiar
leg or wing. But it’s a kind of pâté, a creamy paste of duck
confit and fat that finishes with a concentrated flavor, contrasting
with the port-laced aspic that tops the ramekin. We traded.
It’s a rich, rich dish, and even a small portion on a small
plate goes a long away. So I went on to a red wine, a glass
of Taurino Salice Salentino ($7). It supported that richness.
visit, sitting among the throng that gathered at the bar,
we sampled deviled eggs laced with salmon ($4), a trio of
too-familiar egg halves with an unfamiliar but far more interesting
flavor. Tempura-fried acorn squash ($7) is a nifty concept,
with chipotle maple syrup bringing out the sweetness of the
vegetable—but it needs to be peeled before gaining its fried-batter
food features such contrasts that even the shaved Serrano
ham ($10) gets its match in zucchini pickles. The grilled
wild-boar chop ($13) verges on a complete meal, with sides
of braised red cabbage and a squash-potato croquette.
back to the name of this restaurant: It comes from a dessert
wine native to Tuscany, made from two local varieties of dried,
sweet grapes. Not as sweet as an ice wine and therefore not
as cloying, it’s a perfect finish to a meal, and I sipped
a good glass of vin santo to finish mine.