Endless small wonders

Chef and owner Jose Garces gleaned ideas for Tinto in the pinxto bars of Spain's Basque region.

It could have been the pinxtos. Or it could have been the trip to Paris that the natty, silver-haired gent beside us had apparently presented to his chipper blond date across the table at Tinto.

For every time a new plate arrived - the giant head-on gambas skewered around chorizo and tomatoes, or the tender brochetas of chicken and grapes dunked in truffled garbanzo puree - he'd give her another Paris-themed gift from his bag of goodies, and she'd spring from her chair to maul him with full-contact kisses.

Given the narrow confines of Tinto's back dining room, its mirrored walls traced with the wooden grid of a wine rack, its crowded tall tables pressed up against the hot glass wall separating the room from the bustling open kitchen, that was a lot of passion to witness in such a little space.

So, I decided to order what they had.

Even short of that trip to Paris, I had to restrain the urge to leap up from my chair. "Wow!" was the word most commonly uttered between bites over the course of my meals, from that first flaky taste of the complimentary phyllo tubes infused with Mahon cheese that came with smoked tomato cream dip to the last sugar-rolled cube of jellied Txakolina wine.

I even learned to say "Wow!" in the Basque language of Euskera - "Kontxo!" - in homage to the region of northern Spain and southwest France that has so inspired Tinto's chef and owner, Jose Garces.

Garces, the startlingly talented young culi-visionary behind Old City's Andalusian tapas temple Amada, traveled last year through the pinxto bars of San Sebastien. And he basked in those little plates (pinxtos are similar to southern Spain's tapas) resplendent with seafood from the Bay of Biscay, crimson dustings of espelette pepper, tangy sheep's-milk cheeses from the Pyrenees - and washed them down with hard cider or a good glass of red "tinto."

What has emerged atop the rustic wooden tall tables at his new wine bar north of Rittenhouse Square is a parade of exquisite inspirations - skewered on bamboo sticks, sandwiched between tiny baguettes, roasting in tiny iron crocks, and rising upward from narrow shot-glass flutes. They do not reflect textbook Basque cooking, per se, but are a taste of Garces in his finest vintage. Like those at El Vez and Amada, this menu draws inspiration from authentic flavors, then translates them into contemporary American ideas. And the results are more intricate and refined and magnetic than at either of the 34-year-old's earlier venues.

Each small creation, overseen by chef de cuisine William Zuchman, is crafted with a detailed focus on flavors, contrasting textures and heat, not to mention sheer aesthetic beauty. Tinto already ranks among the city's most thrilling eating adventures.

A chilled white asparagus soup touched with truffle was sublime on its own, but rose to another level when eaten with the accompanying hot croquettes of pureed artichoke and Idiazábal cheese. Incredibly delicate baby squid called chipirones were lavished in an inky black gravy, lightly brackish but sweetened with onion, that tasted like the buttered essence of an ocean shadow.

Tender morsels of duck confit, wrapped in a sheer crisp of Serrano ham over a "montadito" toast smeared with blue cheese, dissolved in a flow of salty crunch and cheese-basted fowl, punctuated by the final garnish burst of a wild cherry. Dome-shaped mounds of bomba rice, Spain's answer to risotto, came in wondrous variations - filled with crab meat beside the chipirones, or scattered with lemony cockle clams and snappy artichokes, or ringing with the woodsy power of morel mushroom cream.

There were so many great dishes here, it was hard to know where to begin. But Tinto's servers were impressively good guides, fluent in the nuances of every dish and spot-on with suggestions from the 60-label wine list (with 15 by the glass), directing us to an effervescent white Txakolina, a lush tempranillo from La Bastida, and an exotic dry muscat from the Roussillon.

Amid the 40-plus menu items, there were a handful of less successful bites. The classic merluza (hake) with parsleyed clam sauce was overcooked. The clever gratin of fava beans in onion cream was oversalted. The gateau Basque was dry.

I also found the high-top tables and pounding noise level at this skinny, 63-seat restaurant to be uncomfortable over the course of a long meal. The downstairs lounge is more sedate. Plans to add a 12-seat private room upstairs, and an additional 45 seats to the first-floor dining room in the neighboring storefront are already under way (with completion expected in September).

The new space can't open fast enough. Not with so many other spectacular dishes just waiting to be eaten.

You can come here simply for the charcuterie and cheeses. There are silky purple strips of house-cured duck ham slicked with arbequina olive oil, for example, or paprika-spiced Pamplona chorizo (better plain than over those odd chocolate-smeared toasts), or medallions of butter-poached foie gras sandwiched between brioche and tangy house-made quince paste.

But there are also more elaborate delights not to be missed. The tender rack of lamb is scattered with house-fried chips so delicate they look like potato butterflies. There are little toasts topped with a soft scramble of zucchini and egg and draped with crimson slices of succulent Kobe beef. Alternating chunks of lobster and hanger steak come on a skewer sprinkled with peanuts and a chile aioli. Brochetas of canteloupe wrapped in white anchovies with pickled guindilla peppers wash across the palate in waves of sea salt, sweet melon and tangy spice.

Even the vegetarian options - snappy wild mushrooms seared on the "plantxa" and an addictive green bean salad (judias verdes) tossed with marcona almonds and dried Moorish fruits in a warm sherry vinaigrette - are memorable.

There are only four desserts to choose from, and all but the gateau Basque are keepers. Caramelized bananas bring out the fruitiness in silky flourless chocolate cake. A rich goat's cheese mousse plays an Andalusian tune with orange blossom gelee and sweet olive oil caramel. The most delicate dessert, though, is the Scent of a Woman, a moist sponge cake filled with sparkling cava gelée, topped with a pouf of rose water foam, then ringed with tiger nut sauce.

After a pinxto feast, that is passion on a plate.

Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Onasis in Cherry Hill. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.