After I ordered a jumble of a half-dozen tapas plates at the new Tapas Rias in Middleton, I began watching a couple seated across from me.
They were obviously enjoying their dinner: a glass of wine, a salad - probably the ensalada catana (greens, olives, eggs and goat cheese) - and, quite restrainedly, two plates of the grilled shrimp. They seemed to be having a well-ordered, civilized meal.
My table, on the other hand, had created a miniature "Taste of Madison" mishmash. This is a danger with small-plate dining, if you're not thinking about designing a meal or a balance of flavors when you order, or are seduced by the menu because everything sounds so good, or just go crazy for a minute. On the other hand, maybe tapas is a license to just go crazy for a minute. No harm done.
Tapas Rias, which focuses on traditional Spanish tapas, can easily seduce with its menu, and its calm, contemporary interior is a lovely, yet casual, welcoming space. It's not at all like the overheated, stereotypical image of a flamenco dancer emblazoned on the cover of the menu. It's certainly classier than what you'd expect to find in an aging Middleton shopping center.
The Plato Combinado, an ever-changing assortment of hot and cold appetizers, is a great way to cover many parts of the menu. Our very sweet waiter earnestly explained each item in detail, although his fairly thick accent meant that I had only a hazy idea of what was actually going to be arriving.
Later, checking against the menu, I deciphered what was on the platter: grilled Spanish sausage and a thin slice of jamón serrano (like prosciutto); ensalada rusa, a potato salad with carrots, tuna and peas and a lively mayonnaise sauce that rocked anything I've ever had at an American picnic; the excellent albóndigas Catalanas, meatballs made with pork, chicken, veal and beef mixed with pine nuts and herbs; calamares a la plancha (squid with an olive oil, garlic and lemon juice dressing).
Finally, and besting them all, was the trucha ahumada, wonderful, soft smoked trout served atop a sliver of cooling cucumber with a peppier garlic-and-cilantro sauce that might or might not have actually been meant for the calamares.
While the calamares a la plancha didn't quite match the dish of the same name as served at the old La Paella in Fitchburg (either for the tenderness of the squid or the brightness of the sauce), the smoked trout, the meatballs and the ensalada rusa were worthy of ordering at full-blown plate size.
When we did move on to full plates, one of the best was the rustic pincho de solomillo, skewered beef tenderloin (very tender) with fries and caramelized onion. While the onions seemed more grilled than caramelized, they were sweet and almost more interesting than the meat. Use the dainty bread slices provided with your meal to catch all of the gravy.
The gambas al ajillo (grilled shrimp with olive oil, garlic and wine) did not appear to be grilled, and the sauce was tomato-based. But a squeeze of the accompanying fresh lemon brought out the best flavors of the shrimp and the sauce, and it was fabulous all the same.
The vieras a la plancha, grilled sea scallops, were grilled, yet lightly, retaining that melting quality of scallops I've been dreaming of all summer. The sauce seemed too heavy a match, though, when a lemon squeeze would have been just right.
The garbanzos con chorizo, described as "garbanzo beans with sun-dried tomatoes, chorizo, cilantro and a touch of chipotle peppers, hot and spicy," was not unlikable, but dull - not very spicy. There are better options. Don't overlook some of the simple cold tapas like the plate of marinated Spanish olives, the mixed seafood and the fresh goat cheese marinated in dill served with cucumbers and olives.
The menu also offers a few sandwiches, three pizzas, and larger dinner servings of roast lamb, chicken and salmon. Vegetarian paella and a quail paella join the house special Paella Rias, made with seafood, chicken and pork.
If you're going to skip one course, it might be dessert. Vanilla and chocolate flan are on the menu, as well as fresh strawberries and cream and a roast pear stuffed with white chocolate and mint. The more decadent tres leches cake lacked flavor, and the rice in the arroz con leche, baked rice pudding with milk and cinnamon, seemed a little toothy.
Three cheers for Tapas Rias for the choice of locating in "east" Middleton, off Allen Boulevard, rather than the trendier sprawl west of Highway 12/14. It's convenient to Waunakee as well as to Madison's west side, and even just a 10-minute drive from Madison's north side.