It is the rare lover of good food who ventures into northern Spain's (and a sliver of France's) rugged Basque country and emerges without having been willingly and thoroughly seduced.
They come back starry-eyed, smitten with the roast lamb from sheep that graze impossibly steep mountainsides and, from the sea, marinated anchovies and squid, tuna (in creamy salads and chowders) and turbot and the famed salted cod.
And the farmstead cheeses - idiazabal chief among them - and the pates and chorizo and, even though it can seem a fish out of water poured high and fast to aerate it at a noir bar in Center City, a raw, steely, white wine called txakolina (roughly, SCHOCK-o-leena), in the singular language of the Basques.
So it is no surprise that chef Jose Garces, on a scouting mission to Spain to create a menu for his Old City tapas room, Amada, came back stuck on the country's northern precincts: "If you live in San Sebastian," he says dreamily, "you can see the mountains and ocean at the same time."
He found love and passion in the food; bars devoted to tiny jewels of sandwiches called bocadillos; a sort of Spanish bruschetta called montaditos; and pintxos (from the word "to prick''), a Basque canon of the tapas found in southern Andalusia, so named because they were traditionally skewered with a toothpick.
Garces' newest venture - the wine-cellaresque, small-plate Tinto - was conceived unintentionally on that trip, and weeks ago opened at 20th and Sansom (at least half of it, anyway; an adjoining 40-seat dining room is set to open sometime this summer).
I was charmed myself on my first Tinto visit, though there were a handful of annoying mussel shell chips in the casserole of moules basquaise. And it was uncomfortably close in the joint, so instantly "in" that - for crowd control and to satisfy fire-code limits - they were demanding reservations not only at the tall wood-plank tables, but also at seats along the bar itself.
But here is Garces' secret. He is not promiscuous in his passions. He studies a cuisine in its native habitat. He assembles a coherent and logical menu. He reinterprets the food, respecting its origins, but also local taste buds, his own very much involved.
So a classic tuna dish might show up with elegant toro, the fatty belly of the tuna (and priced at $22). The rodaballo a la plancha takes grilled turbot in the tropical direction, setting it in gentle, anise-citrus sauce dotted with orange and pink grapefruit. Marinated anchovies don't stand alone; they are wrapped around cantaloupe cubes, then smartly pricked.
The food is uniformly pretty (without being precious as some earlier Spanish knockoffs tend to be), and abidingly clever (as some nearby Spanish knockoffs aren't). The frites with the mussels are served standing on end, their bottoms painted with a surprising dab of lemon aioli. The de pato is toast topped with a robust cigar of succulent duck confit rolled in serrano ham, a couple of dark, sweet black cherries providing punctuation. Citrus-cured salmon on a mini-croissant heaped with egg salad gets a salty kick from a dash of caviar and crispy shallots.
But Tinto manages, in most dishes, a tough balancing act, working up flavors (the marcona almonds, $4, are roasted and then smoked and finished in olive oil and sea salt) with regional personality, but with restraint, even delicacy. Basque country dishes are refined and updated. Still, it's northern Spain's blue cheeses that inform the spreads; and a given stock or sweet may employ the aforementioned txakolina, a wine better suited as an ingredient than for consumption by the glass.
I am eager, nevertheless, for Garces to get on with his next act - a big Mexican place called Chilango in West Philly. How better to carve out some elbow room at the bar at Tinto?