By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Tampa Bay area diners can officially txikiteo. Pronounced chickie-te-o, this is the Basque name for a traditional Spanish tapas crawl whereby groups of hungry friends hop from one place to the next in search of delicious nibbles, an absurd number of toothpicks sacrificed along the way.
Tapas bars and other Spanish-inflected small-plate restaurants have proliferated here recently, some of this a reflection of our enthusiasm for the bold flavors of that part of the Mediterranean, and some of it our ardor for the price point (reasonable).
Basque debuted at the old Wild Fish location at the end of June, a collaboration of David Awslander, Sam Heller, Tyler Lasher and chef Keith Williamson. It's a huge, clubby space, one that has been warmed with water features, lush greenery and an earth tone color scheme.
Wild Fish opened in 2008 just as the country's financial maelstrom started, limping along only a year before it was turned into a nightclub. Basque aims to do a little of both, hoping diners will graze awhile and then linger to listen to music and dance.
And based on a couple of recent visits, the grazing is good. Williamson's palette isn't drawn strictly from the Basque region: It's more of a romp around Spain, from the seafood dishes in the north to the paellas in the east and the roasted meats and stews of Central Spain.
Then there's stuff the average Spaniard might eye suspiciously (lobster tater tots?! ahi tuna tempura with ponzu sauce?). That doesn't mean that these more unconventional dishes aren't worth investigating. The tots ($9) suffered from a not-quite-crispy exterior (they were more like croquettes than something Ore-Ida might lay claim to), but the ahi tuna ($14), really a tuna roll quickly tempura-battered and fried, was a table favorite.
Back on the tapas straight and narrow, the skillet manchego with grilled bread ($10) was punchy and gooey, a good foil for a bowl of Sicilian sauteed spinach ($8) enlivened by onion, raisins, garlic and a surprising hint of ginger. Add to this a glass or carafe of red sangria (the white peach version proved a bit cloying), an order of Serrano-stuffed dates ($8) and a charcuterie plate ($14) of Spanish all-stars like chorizo, Serrano ham and dry-cured pork lomo embuchado, and it's an easy, nearly finger-food meal to share with friends.
Williamson has opted to offer a trio of paellas as well as a range of more rib-sticking, less Spanish entrees. Straight-up steaks and dishes like grilled chicken breast with rosemary sauce muddy the message a bit, but the offerings broaden the potential fan base, perhaps a smart thing in such a large concept.
Basque's size will likely be the biggest challenge for the ownership team: Even one-third full it seems like a whole lot of empty seats (slightly frigid air-conditioning exaggerating the effect somehow). But Williamson has experience in big restaurants, having come from Jackson's Bistro and Ocean Prime in Tampa. And certainly the service and bar teams seem smooth and savvy, ready for big numbers.
Now they're just waiting for Pinellas County diners to explore the charms of txikiteo.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced.