INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — About half the people on the planet count on rice as a staple for their diet. • Tapas Garden & Wine Bar in Indian Rocks Beach counts on rice for less than 10 percent of its menu. But it is the portion of the menu from which you should order first. • See, there are four paella options, and they take a half-hour to prepare. So pick one, order it, then start in on the tapas.
We tried the paella pollo ($17.99), which starts with a bed of the perfumey saffron rice, topped with chunks of chicken, pork, chorizo sausage, artichokes and peppers. Each element was good on its own and in concert with each other. Part of me wasn't sure that the rice itself was a short grain, which is standard in a paella, but there was so much flavor I decided that I didn't care. (Another night, the rice seemed correct.) After sharing a number of the tapas, that pan of paella was more than enough for three of us.
The paella Valenciana ($24.95) is more traditional, with shellfish joining the chicken and chorizo, and there are versions with just shellfish ($26.99) and vegetarian ($16.95).
Okay, now that we've gotten past the description of the beautiful dish in the photo, let's set the scene.
Tapas Garden is at the site of the former la Cachette. As the name implies, much of the seating is outside, and when the temperature and humidity levels cooperate, that's the place to sit. There is live music and tables in front of the building, with cozier seating in the side garden. And large air coolers. Those are key. When the weather isn't cooperating, the dining room is charming as well, if considerably more formal. If cargo shorts and Tommy Bahama is your chosen beach attire, you'll be comfortable outside.
Now, about those tapas . . .
After a couple of visits, I might have thought we plowed through the bulk of them, but looking at the menu, we only scratched the surface of the 20 or so options. The favorites were the fried green tomato ($8.95), served as a napoleon with alternating layers of tomato slices and crab meat, and the pate ($7.95), which is a creamy spread of duck and chicken liver. It is easy for a pate to get gamey, but here it kept a nice soft flavor and silky texture.
The clear diva of the tapas menu was the antipasto wedge ($7.95). It refuses to be ignored. Built sort of like a lasagna, there are layers of crepe, mozzarella, prosciutto, salami, tomato and pepper. It is a beautiful dish to look at, and most of the classic antipasto flavors are there. It felt like there was one thing that it needed to elevate it from a really good idea to a really great dish. Maybe some basil oil? Maybe a balsamic glaze? Not sure, but it seemed so close.
The misses among the tapas were pretty minor. The omelet ($4.99) was too large for a tapa, even when shared. Our Spanish fries ($3.95) — potato chips — were devoid of crunch.
Among the traditional entrees, the lamb shank ($13.95) and the spicy garlic shrimp ($15.95) were solid choices. The lamb properly fell apart under the weight of the fork and came in a pool of luscious braising liquid. The problem with the herb-crusted ribeye ($16.95) that we had was that the herb crusting hid the fact that the steak was quite fatty, more than you would expect even in a ribeye. That and the low lighting of the garden made it hard to carve around.
But all of that about the entrees is moot, because you should have one of the paellas.
The wine list is nicely tilted toward Spanish choices, for obvious reasons, and only three of the 50 bottles top $40. About three-quarters of the options are available by the glass.
Among the desserts, we got lucky because the cheesecake of the day ($4.95) on one visit was a pineapple caramel, an excellent combination on its own that goes surprisingly well with cheesecake.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.