Cafe Apamate

The chef shows a sure touch with tapas and other Spanish specialties, especially at brunch. If service were only more consistent ...

I've dipped fresh churros into the profound darkness of Apamate's hot chocolate more than once and thought to myself: This is one of the most sublime morsels of indulgence Philadelphia has to offer.

And yet Cafe Apamate, the paprika-colored Spanish bistro that Ane Ormaechea opened on South Street in May 2006, has never been formally reviewed.

Ormaechea shouldn't take it personally, as she has plenty of company. I currently have a list of 119 restaurants, old and new, that would be more than worthy of a complete review in this space. But in a restaurant-rich region that seems to acquire a few new ones each week, some of the most worthy have fallen through the cracks uncovered.

There are reasons, of course, that Apamate has hovered just below my radar, mostly matters of timing and the cafe's own struggle to define itself. But after some memorable meals in the last month, its moment has finally come. And it is well-deserved, reaching far beyond those churros to a parade of striking tapas and other soulful Iberian classics.

Seared scallops come beneath a lemony froth of green apple foam, which gently pops on the tongue to enhance the scallops' sweetness. Tender clams peek up from a bowl of parsley essence so green, they could be bathing in forest ink. The juice is so zesty, we mop it with bread until it's gone.

Among the handful of larger plates, there were stellar seafood paellas in a classic saffron hue, but also tinted to a luxurious black with squid, whose tender white rings also snapped inside the moist rice alongside sweet, head-on gamba shrimp. At brunch, which has perhaps become Apamate's signature meal, the tortilla Española exudes the savory magnetism of the flavorful northern Asturian style. The micro-thin potato slices are slow-poached in olive oil before forming with onions the delicate layers of a thick and garlicky omelet pie that comes dabbed with a rust-colored paprika-chile aioli.

Ormaechea, 29, was born in Venezuela, and the restaurant is named both for her favorite tree there and for El Rey's Apamate, the 73.5 percent cocoa bars used in her hot chocolate. But she also spent much of her childhood visiting her parents' native Spain, so she has an intimate grasp of authentic Spanish flavors. When she makes something as simple as "La Catalana," a grilled baguette painted with garlicky tomato puree, arbequina olive oil, and a sheer slice of Serrano ham, it has the touch and the taste of a snack passed down from someone's mama's kitchen.

Translating these, and other more sophisticated flavors, into the right format for this 41-seat bistro, though, has been an evolution.

Set in the midst of perpetual construction on a rapidly gentrifying but still out-of-the-way block of South Street, Apamate was easy to overlook when it opened. It was overshadowed by the buzz of glitzier tapas bars like Amada, Bar Ferdinand and Tinto. It was also an odd, in-between creation. Was it a churros dessert cafe? A Euro-style neighborhood cafeteria? And what kind of tapas "bar" is a BYOB? The service was also a constant drag, ranging from completely snitty to glacially slow.

But something finally clicked over the last year. The service is still frustratingly inconsistent (our Saturday dinner waitress was fabulous, our brunch waiter so uninterested he was almost rude). The erratic hours have smartly been pared back to focus on dinner and brunch. But more important, the self-taught Ormaechea, who previously worked as a server at Cibucan, is cooking with self-assured inspiration that should make this underappreciated spot a destination - if it can get the service in gear.

Her homemade chorizo lends an earthy backbone to a tiny red crock of chickpea stew. Caramellos de morcilla, inspired by a meal in Asturias, bring crispy bonbon-shaped dumplings filled with blood sausage, apples and sage.

Chunks of that black sausage also lend a sneaky undertow of spice to the lentils beneath the crisply seared fillet of Alaskan black cod. A splash of albariño wine and garlic add spark to the huge shrimp that come tucked heads-down into a little crock draped with a red "gabardina" kerchief of roasted piquillo pepper.

The lamb meatball kebab, the dry meat stuffed with a green grape, was one of my few disappointments. A couple of other dishes (like the blood-sausage lentils) were salty. A strangely grainy, dairy-free chocolate mousse was a rare dessert miscue.

Otherwise, Ormaechea's cooking was spot-on. A tender grilled ribeye came beneath an addictively tangy Cabrales cream. The pork loin "adobado," marinated two days in rioja and smoked paprika rub, had an incredible savor with roasted piquillo peppers and a cool shred of melon salad.

The beets "three ways" were among the more precious creations. But these beet chips topped with scoops of sherry-poached beets, goat cheese and sugar-crisped Marcona almonds brought a mouthful of intriguing textures and shades of sweet. The gorgeous tuna escabeche, meanwhile, was a clear tribute to the quality of the sushi-grade fish, lightly seared and coiled in thick ribbons beneath a shine of arbequina olive oil, and topped with a tangy nest of onions infused with sherry vinegar and herbs.

Though Apamate is BYOB, it makes an excellent, fruit-filled sangria with your wine. After dinner (and especially during brunch), Apamate also makes some of the better espresso drinks in town, thanks to good Intelligentsia beans from Chicago that darken a richly textured cafe con leche.

When it comes to hot drinks, though, the hot chocolate here is the extreme - midnight black, like liquid silk, so intense that a small cup will suffice. And there's nothing like a plate of freshly fried churro sticks for lapping it up. The chocolate pools inside the deeply grooved, sugar-crusted ridges, channeling 73.5 percent worth of molten cocoa pleasure straight to the brain.

Did I mention that it was sublime?


Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Azie in Media. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.