1217 Queen St., Southington, (860) 410-1147, elpulpoandtapasbar.com
It's not what you expect to find sandwiched between an out-of-business pizza shop and a tire place. We tend to look for fine Spanish cuisine and elegant tapas in funky downtown spots or trendy restaurant locations. But El Pulpo in Southington serves carefully crafted — pretty much flawless — Mediterranean fare with a focus on beautiful-on-the-plate small servings that are the ideal partners for a glass of red wine, or, hey, it still being the festive season, a glass of bubbly Cava (the Champagne-style sparkling wines of Catalonia).
El Pulpo (the name means octopus in Spanish) is tucked in a humble little commercial strip on Queen Street. If you're not looking for the storefront, you'll probably miss it. Even if you are, you still might. But the staff at El Pulpo seem to know that they've got a good thing, and that word of mouth is bound to spread, driving curious diners to this little gem.
The interior is quiet, with dark hardwood floors, deep earthy colors in the room. A few quaint landscape paintings adorn the walls. A cozy little bar area sits between the front entrance and kitchen. The tastefully energetic flamenco of the Gipsy Kings played on the stereo when I visited for lunch last week.
For lunch, starters range from $5 to $9. It's surprisingly affordable given the caliber of the ingredients, the preparation and the quantities. I started with a $6 plate of marinated anchovies (boquerones). These delightfully tangy and slightly sweet little fish are often served on their own. They're excellent unadorned. But the kitchen at El Pulpo ups the zing with colorful splashes of seasoned oils and purees — dots of a red slightly spicy pepper sauce, dribbles of an vibrant herb oil and a small mound of roasted red and green peppers.
Equally excellent was an order of grilled shrimp served over a smooth and mild chick pea puree. This too had splashy accents of herb vinaigrette and a balsamic reduction, balancing sweet and tart, a hint of the grill and the creaminess of puree. Other starters include chorizo in a port reduction sauce served with cannelloni beans ($8). There are mussels in garlic and white wine, as well as fried calamari, and cod fish croquettes ($6) served over paprika aiolo.
The manager seemed to be enjoying impressing the lunch crowd by dropping off a surprise salad, or an order of lomo de serdo (medallions or roasted pork tenderloin served over toasted bread with roasted piquillo pepper and pleasingly sharp tetilla cheese), compliments of the house. Diners were already enjoying themselves, but this little note of generosity boosted the conviviality levels even more.
But it was the food that was winning over patrons. The house seafood risotto was inducing hushed cries of pleasure and admiration ($14.50). Its creamy base of rice was loaded with chunks of white fish, tender scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams. Razor thin wisps of basil imparted a delightful aroma without overpowering the seafood. Many restaurants would proudly charge more than $20 for the delicious plate of food I was served.
I ended my meal with a pleasingly stern cup of espresso and an order of crema Catalan, sort of the Spanish version of creme brulee. This is generally a simple custard with a caramelized sugar surface, giving the dessert a glassy surface, extreme contrasts of textures between smooth and hard, and a depth of flavor, too. A carefully sliced strawberry and delicate mint leaf added accents of taste and color. Like everything else I was served at El Pulpo, this was lovely to look at, and, once you dove in with a spoon, delicious, too.