If you want to eat at Artesano Vino Tapas y Mas, prepare yourself for a lot of bull.
No, not that kind of bull — cool bull stuff. Like dozens of vivid wall-mounted photographs of bullfighting action; miniature bull heads affixed to the ends of tables for hanging purses; and the mounted head of an actual champion fighting bull named Manchego, whose auburn hair is coiffed and swirled to such a luster you might imagine he didn’t mind losing just that once. I certainly didn’t mind toasting him with my opening cocktail, Running with the Buffaloes, that, no bull, is one of the best bourbon cocktails I’ve ever had.
“Bullfighting is just an important part of our culture,” said Fernando Martinez, executive chef and principal in the appropriately named Olé Restaurant Group. “You’ll see it everywhere here.”
Except on the menu. Well, as least as far as we know. After a bull’s service to the herd has ended, its meat is tough and goes to the grinder. And outside of the Albondigas (Spanish-style meatballs, $8), there’s no ground beef on the diverse but restrained menu. Beef lovers will find several sharable large cuts of rib-eye, flank, strip and cheeks that came from cows who avoided the matador’s sword. Tender they are, especially those cheeks (Carrilleras de Res, $12), slow braised interminably in a stock reduced to demi-glace richness.
“Oh, cheeks are great!” said Christina Martinez, wife of Fernando and the second of three principals in ORG. The third is Fernando’s cousin, Yaniel. “Most people think, ‘Cheeks? Really?’ They don’t know what they’re missing.”
And even if they’re eager for a taste of cheek after reading this, they may have to wait to avoid the herd that will bull its way into Artesano in this, its opening week. After a week of practice dinners for invited guests only, the restaurant (1321 Herr Lane, Westport Village) welcomed paying customers as of 5:30 p.m. Monday.
“We’ve had people walking up all week asking if they could come in, and we’ve had to explain that they can’t,” said Rick Moir, ORG operating partner. “You hate to say that to them, but it shows the excitement about the opening.”
Doubtless, Artesano’s opening is one of the year’s most anticipated. It marks the first ORG restaurant in which the space and décor was substantially and expensively overhauled and given a uniquely defined look. Unlike ORG’s two Mussel & Burger Bars, which still look mostly like their forbearers (Caffe Perusa and St. Charles Exchange), there’s no trace of the former A.P. Crafters here. Once divided by a decorative wall, the bar and dining spaces now are one expanse, the kitchen itself is completely open and features a diner-like bar at which you can watch the action up close. Drop ceilings were raised substantially, and an abundant number of modern light fixtures dangle from them. Colorful tiles imported from Mexico feature prominently on walls and floors.
The food and drink, as nearly everyone expected, are fantastic. While Fernando Martinez co-founded Mojito Tapas Restaurant with former partner and Havana Rumba owner Marcos Lorenzo, don’t expect any overlap between the two tapas concepts.
I have to trust Martinez when he says his tapas lean heavily on the Spanish tradition, but even then they diverge from the true “small plates” standard that are more snack-like in Spain. There are no plates that small at Artesano, no diminutive amuses bouche or trio teaser bites that might last one through about half a beer. Everything is sized for sharing by at least two and arguably four. Perhaps it’s best to call them “group tapas” or “tapas Americanas,” because bigger is better in the U.S., right?
My wife and I did our best to soldier through several not-small plates while regretting we hadn’t invited a pair of guests for a team assault on those goodies. I’m a sucker for cured meats and she loves great cheeses, so we started out with a selection of both from the Quesos y Embutidos menu ($6-$12 for each selection. Don’t miss the Woodlands Pork Iberico-style ham. Cured in Louisville by Jay Denham, it’s easily one of the nation’s finest hams, and you’ll never find it so affordably priced as here for $12).
Moving on to hot items, we ordered the Escalidaba en Conserva ($8), a jar of slow-roasted eggplant, tomatoes and onions, served with fried goat’s cheese and grilled bread. We then girded our guts for the Bombas de Toro ($11), balls of mashed potatoes combined with bits of short rib and oxtail that were deep fried and splashed with red pepper aioli. Oh, my, oh, my! The aforementioned beef cheeks came next (phenomenal), followed by Pulpo a la Gallega ($12), a dish of meaty roasted octopus with black olive aioli and fried chick peas. Nothing like that in town. Period.
Like worn out bulls drawn in by the matador’s cape, our server led us to dessert, a dish whose menu name I can’t recall, but whose flavors and textures were unforgettable. One side of the plate held a small disc of olive oil cake topped with glazed raspberries, offset by a scoop of raspberry ice cream on the opposite side. Opposite those were crumbled bits of cake and flowers, and the whole was linked by a cross of raspberry glaze through the plate’s middle.
“It’s a traditional dish that symbolizes the cross (of Christ),” Martinez said. “It’s special in our culture.”
A truly special culture is that which keeps this restaurant company humming. Just one week before it opened Artesano, ORG opened its second Mussel & Burger Bar, its sixth restaurant in three years. No. 7, Red Barn Kitchen, is confirmed for February 2016, and No. 8 is strongly rumored. Hardly a restaurateur in town I talk to isn’t amazed by this independent company’s growth and staying power, especially amid an economy in which the supply of skilled restaurant labor is tighter than a matador’s costume.
Fernando Martinez agreed that it’s hard to find good people, but he insists the key is keeping those who join.
“We demand a lot of our people, but we treat them with respect and pay them as well as we can,” he said, adding that his company conducts job fairs regularly before new restaurant openings. “We plan to keep growing, so we’re building a team here to do that. People like to be part of a growing organization because it’s exciting.”
And Artestano is super exciting. No bull.