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May 15, 2008 08:46 PM

Stumbling Into Bar Pintxo

I was kicking around in foreign territory down Santa Monica way for the afternoon, thinking I was resigned to a poor lunch at some ho-hum Third Street Promenade eatery - thank God at least Monsieur Marcel had opened up - when I practically tripped over Bar Pintxo. I'm never in Santa Monica, so I really didn't expect ever to go to Bar Pintxo. My trip down here was just a spur-of-the-moment thing. Well, I knew where I was having lunch today.

There was only server, and she told me I could sit wherever I liked. No one was sitting at the bar; only some tables were taken, so I chose the bar. I could appreciate that the waitress wanted to be attentive to the customers, but when my wait for service started pushing the ten minute mark as she remained with the same one table, I began to get a little annoyed. One couple had come in shortly after I sat, examined the tapas in the bar's display and the chalkboard wines, but, having not been met by a server after looking around and craning their necks for a server, they left.

I finally got some help from the server when she was free. I know absolutely nothing about Spanish wines, and the wine list at Bar Pintxo does little more than separate the offerings into blanco and tinto. Another annoyance, especially as the server's recommendations never fell on the wines that were five, six, or seven dollars a glass; all the best wines were, I noticed, the ones that were nine or ten dollars a glass. (I noticed when the price increases began in earnest at Pizzeria Mozza all the best quartinos were suddenly the most expensive ones there, too.) The white wine I got - don't ask me what it was; the name had an "x" in it - was just okay for nine bucks. In my opinion, when it comes to wine, Spain is no France or Italy.

The tapas were hit and miss. The white asparagus with romesco sauce was a big miss. The white asparagus had an unpleasant waxy-stringy texture (I don't know if this is the fault of the restaurant or of white asparagus as a vegetable) and the bread tasted of char. The prawns in garlic were cooked well, nicely garlicky and tender, but they were nothing unique other than they came with the face still on. The dates stuffed with Cabrales and rolled in bacon - a Spanish version of Devils on Horseback, perhaps - were really fantastic. I could have had another order of these, frankly. These are one of the real stars at Bar Pintxo. The same can be said for the croquetes, which are very different from the version served at Cobras & Matadors. The Bar Pintxo version has a completely creamy interior, which I almost thought might have been a mistake in cooking until I saw the order for the diner a few stools down had the same interior texture. The croquetes are chicken (liquid chicken?) with big chunks of jamón served with a dollop of garlic-spiked mayonnaise. Excellent, excellent stuff.

I should have stopped there, but knowing it would be a long time until I get back to Santa Monica - and, when I do come back, I'll be at Anisette a few blocks away - I ordered a sangria and more tapas. The sangria has nothing on Border Grill's superlative version. The jamón with fried leeks and tomato was too busy. The chopped tomato and onion relish or salsa or whatever clobbered the taste of the ham. (At least the bread wasn't burnt this time.) But the sopa de ajo was the real disaster. The waitress warned me that some customers dislike it because it is very heavy on garlic and paprika. Garlic and paprika I can take, so I said that would be fine. In the more than fifteen minutes I had to wait for it, I nearly canceled the soup. I had begun to think the three cooks, who were right in front of me, forgot the order. But then, right when I was about to cancel it, the bowl appeared. Garlic and paprika I can handle. What I got was something that was like a ham-and-egg scramble in red broth. Take fluffy scrambled eggs with fatty cured pork. Pour soup over it. Yuck. I could see pieces of boiled pork skin in the soup; it was not pleasant. The last two items meant my meal ended on a low note.

The service, while slow and scattered, was completely pleasant and obliging. There was just one server for the whole bar, and since she was trying to give personalized service, sometimes things got held up. That's different than chatting with the other servers or talking on the phone and definitely fine with me. As for the notorious stools, no, they aren't great, but I didn't develop sciatica over my meal. I didn't even think, Wow, I'm uncomfortable. The only time I actually thought about the stools was when I thought to myself that I should judge the comfort level of the stools. What annoyed me more was the relative impenetrability of the menu. Bar Pintxo could be a great place for quick in-and-out dining - if one did not need to have the server translate half the menu and explain a good chunk of the wine list as I had to. When the bar is packed at night, that could be a real problem. Perhaps a description of the untranslated dishes could be helpful for those of us who opted for French class in high school. The tapas at Bar Pintxo seem more authentic than at Cobras & Matadors, which is now more of a small plates restaurant - and, after my last meal at Cobras in March, seems to have declining quality. (Comparing Bar Pintxo to Cobras & Matadors may not be comparing apples to oranges, but it definitely feels like at least comparing apples to pears to me.) But authenticity may not be everyone's cup of tea: Rounds of bread topped with mayonnaise-y crab salad seems like something I would see at a church social for blue hairs, not a trendy Spanish eatery. Some of the items, frankly, just didn't seem appetizing, and I dodged a few bullets by being able to match the dishes to what was laid out in the sushi bar-style glass cases in front of me. My advice: I think the best seats at Bar Pintxo might be at the bar to see the dishes in the case and at the stoves and choose by sight.

I am glad I stumbled into Bar Pintxo. It's the kind of place I want just to stumble into, frankly. But I wouldn't travel across the city for another visit. If I was in the neighborhood for some other reason, and Anisette was full, and Robata Bar was closed or I heard it was awful, and it wasn't the affordable night for JiRaffe, and I didn't want to leave to eat somewhere else, and I was craving Spanish food for some reason... I might stumble into Bar Pintxo again. But that's a big if.

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  1. Very thorough and well written review, Woolsey. I feel like I was right there next to you on my uncomfortable companion stool eating along with you. We haven't been, but I recall more than one person griping about the cost to value ratio, especially when you roll the size of the portions into the mix. As to wine prices. It seems like $9 or $10 is on the low end, (kind of like recalling when I thought $2 a gal. gas was steep..lol) of what I see at some many places these days it doesn't even phase me any longer. What did your mini meal cost you?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Servorg

      Actually, I think the $9 and $10 were the toward the top of the line, at least for the whites I was looking at. (Call me a philistine, but I tend to prefer white over red. Prices on the larger tinto side might have been even higher, and some wines are only sold by the bottle.) There were plenty of wines priced at $5, $6, and $7, but - surprise, surprise! - none of them were as good as the $9 or $10 ones according to the server.

      All told, I dished out $46.55 for a glass of wine ($9), a glass of sangria ($6), and six plates before tip. I believe the white asparagus was $6, the prawns $6, the croquetes $5, the dates $4, the jamón $3, and the soup $4. I really should have and could have stopped at the first round but didn't because, again, I tried to make this visit as comprehensive as possible. Yes, the portions seem small at two pieces per order for most, but when it settles, it really hits you because there is a degree of disguised richness to a lot of it. (All the better to soak up the wine patrons are drinking and spur on another round, right?) I don't know that I feel cheated by portion size and price; it's more that just some of the dishes just weren't so good, and ordering was a bit of a hassle for those of us who don't know the nuances of Spanish wine and Spanish language.

    2. I also checked out Bar Pintxo a few days ago. Funny, our bacon and dates dish was our least favorite. It seemed over cooked. I loved the croquettes and the garlic shrimp, as well as the jamon iberico and paella with blood sausage and chicken. Our server delivered a flatbread dish we didn't order, even though she insisted we did. I guess the customer is not always right at Bar Pintxo. The wines were a mixed bag for us, but I would definitely go back for a few of those dishes. Here's our entire review:


      2 Replies
      1. re: grubtrotters

        I'm glad I avoided the coca pintxo (flatbread); it didn't sound great. But then, it probably would've been better than that ghastly soup. My dates were just barely warmed, the opposite of your overcooked ones; just the sides had noticeable heat. All the flavors were in balance on them at their lukewarm temperature. The paella yesterday was bacalao and spinach, so I skipped it. They change the varieties, it seems, so it's not the same old paella. When I got the paella at Cobras in March, it was overwhelmingly sour from too much lemon or something, so I was interested to see what Bar Pintxo's was like, but salt cod-and-spinach paella? Pass.

        Your positive note on the jamón iberico makes me reconsider it, but I'm still hesitant. I don't care if those pigs are descended from Queen Victoria and fed on ground pixies and gold dust: at $18 a plate, it was too pricey for me yesterday. Maybe if I'm with a group next time.

        1. re: Woolsey

          We were a group of four. It is pretty pricey, and you can find charcuterie that's just as tasty elsewhere. Unless you're on an expense account, I'd say wait until you can share the cost.

      2. We almost never go to that part of town and especially on a warm Friday night. Last night we happen to walk by Bar Pintxo and decided to give it a try. My short answer is that is was ok and nothing really wowed us. We had the same issue with standing there waiting to be seated. After about 5 minutes we asked where we could sit. She replied "oh just sit any where." A simple greeting would have been nice. Will we go back? No. $115 for 6 glasses of spanish wine and a few tapas that wernt really all that good isnt enough to bring be back.

        1. Food: Agreed that I had a hard time deciphering the menu, though I sat at the bar which helped figure out what was what. Ordered the dates which were too mushy and bland (maybe I shouldn't have compared them in my head to the sublime ones at AOC, but couldn't help it). Was really excited for the jamón iberico which has had rave reviews, but was massively disappointed. It was good, but not excellent and for the $18 we received only four small slices (very poorly cut) and two pieces of bread that tasted burnt. We also had the croquettes which my partner liked, but I thought reminded my of instant mashed potatoes in both taste and gluey texture. Finally had the lamb chops, which were nothing special. Maybe the poor food quality comes from the fact that the majority of the tapas are premade and sit in a case for hours, which really turns me off.

          Service: Friendly and helpful, but took forever to flag someone down and they kept messing up our orders/forgetting stuff.

          Stools: Felt like I was constantly about to slip out of mine.