It's hard to imagine Jose Garces and his red-hot tapas kitchen ever tiring of the pace that comes with being the food scene's latest darling. But when the sultry perfume of shrimp sizzling in terra-cotta crocks of garlic oil is not enough, Garces and his flagging crew will always have flamenco.
"The passion of flamenco inspires me," says Garces, who peeks out from his open kitchen as the 9 p.m. performance approaches. "When you hear that guitar go - da-da-dam!- it can get kind of feverish in here."
The long wooden country table gets pushed against the wall. The gorgeous people sipping sangria and Almodovar-themed cocktails pause at their soft, red-leather banquettes and their tables laden with smoke-dusted octopus. And as the dancer takes the stage in a foot-stomping swirl of flower-print, fringe and fishnet stockings, the group Flamenco del Encuentro strums into full voice, and it's as if someone dialed the plancha griddle to high.
"We get that energy in the kitchen," Garces says, "and it gives a little rhythm to the meal."
Live flamenco would come off as a hokey gimmick alongside most of the weak efforts I've seen at Spanish tapas. But the twice-weekly performances at Amada are a natural because Garces has done his part, crafting a genuine identity for this seductive Old City space. Amada's debut brings more energy and maturity than any new restaurant I've seen in at least a year.
Those are real Spanish serrano hams dangling over the bar, where a wall of sangria barrels nestled into dark wood cubbies lends the feel of a genuine bodega. A glass case harbors some perfect Spanish cheeses - an oozy sheep's milk La Cerena, herby Romao, and ash-covered Monte Enebro - and cuminy links of Iberian sausage. And the bar is stocked with an excellent list of Spanish wines (all available by the glass) and bone-dry sherries that are ideal with olives and boquerone anchovies.
Garces' cooking, meanwhile, rarely disappoints. The Chicago-raised son of Ecuadoran parents spent nearly a year cooking on the Andalusian coast after culinary school. And he treats the Spanish palette with the same skill that he brought to Mexican and Cuban cuisines at El Vez and Alma de Cuba, elevating authentic dishes with superb ingredients and a modern touch.
The tortilla Espa?ola, a potato-filled egg dish usually served cold, arrives here hot to order, a crisp round served with a miniature mortar-and-pestle brimming with saffron-dusted aioli. Deep-fried croquettes of salt cod melt in the mouth like fish-scented potato creams, chased by the salty fresh pop of caviar and the cool tang of tomato puree. Dime-shaped rounds of tender octopus, dusted with smoked paprika beneath a sheen of arbequina olive oil, are irresistible.
Warm little flatbreads come topped with truffled chanterelle mushrooms and artichokes, or rare strips of duck breast topped with salty nuggets of Cabrales and foie gras mousse. Piquillo peppers scattered with almonds over romesco sauce are plumped with a creamy crab bound with smoky San Simon cheese. And when the plate is lifted from the terra-cotta dish with those sizzling shrimp, a puff of steam rises above us like a garlic cloud.
One of the challenges to tapas is orchestrating a satisfying meal of little plates, and finding the perfect pacing. It's amazingly smooth at Amada, a tribute to the kitchen and an impressive service staff that was informative but not smarmy, and genuinely enthusiastic about the food.
The wide-ranging menu, meanwhile, offers more than 60 choices ranging from charcuterie nibbles and classic tapas to more creative composed dishes, simple plancha sautees, and larger (albeit slightly less successful) dishes to be shared by an entire table.
The enormous paella Valenciana, for example, was a stupendous finale centerpiece, a broad pan of saffron rice studded with chorizo and sublimely tender chicken. The "lobster" paella tinted black with squid ink was also delicious, but for $75 didn't have nearly enough lobster. The huge dry-aged chuleta rib-eye for two was a monumental piece of beef, but the gentle sous-vide vacuum cooking technique left far too much fat on the meat, and the vinegar-spiked demiglace was too intrusive.
But I can't wait to round up a group of four to devour one of Garces' special-order suckling pigs, especially if the smaller pernil asado dish was any preview. This pork shank - brined and slow-stewed in molten lard, then served over white beans with rosemary beneath Seville oranges - was one of the best slices of pig I've ever eaten, the meltingly tender meat rimmed by a schmear of fat and a cracker-crisp ribbon of skin.
And yet, it was but one of many spectacular flavors at Amada. There was soulful caldo gallego stew of white beans, ham and kale dolloped with a white bloom of potato foam. A special of harmonica-shaped razor clams, sauteed simply on the plancha with garlic butter, parsley and lemon, were as tasty as they were unusual. Something as simple as charred green onions with Catalan nut sauce was memorable. More intricate creations, like the filet mignon over Cabrales demiglace topped with a torch-crisped slice of foie gras, left an impression, too.
If there's still room - and believe me, those little dishes add up (in every way) - Amada doesn't lose its groove for desserts. They range from the traditional (the orange-scented crema Catalan; spoonfuls of fried leche frita custard with butterscotch) to modern fantasies like the chocolate five ways (hot white chocolate anyone?) or caramel bananas with chocolate cake and saffron custard.
But this still tastes like just a beginning. Garces' debut feels like the chef equivalent of that flamenco guitarist setting the tone for something special with that first heart-pumping, string-rattling strum. I can't wait to see how his tune at Amada plays out.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.