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Small Plates, Big Tastes

SANTA FE, N.M. — Among Santa Fe’s crop of 2012 restaurants, Taberna is one of the most successful. Customers love the urban, big-city ambiance, the community tables, long bar and live music. Taberna is a first-rate establishment, especially for diners who enjoy the energy of a noisy crowd.

The menu focuses on sharable hot and cold tapas with a few entree-style dishes. The tapas range from a simple dish of delicious olives to grilled meat and fish and more exotic choices. In addition to what’s on the main menu, Taberna offers special tapas during nightly happy hour, “hora feliz,” from 5 to 7 p.m. And, each evening brings some off-menu creations worth coming back for.

Prices range from $4 to $12 for a regular-sized tapas plate with larger sizes for share-ability among bigger groups. Our party of four found that the “regular” size was perfect. Most of what we ordered came with at least two pieces, large enough to share and small enough to allow us to explore a wide sampling of menu offerings.

Taberna
WHERE: 125 Lincoln Ave., Santa Fe, 505- 988-7102
HOURS: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. nightly; lunch Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
FOOD: Spanish. Beer and wine available.
SERVICE: Very good.
AMBIANCE: Casual.

In addition to the printed menu, happy hour customers receive an insert with the day’s tapas and wine specials. If you’re new to tapas, Spanish appetizers that make a meal, the servers can help you order wisely. Even if you are a long-time tapas fan, don’t be shy about asking for recommendations. The staff was gracious and well-informed and made excellent suggestions. I joke about servers who say, “Everything is good here,” but it might not be an exaggeration at Taberna. Certainly, every dish we tried gave us pleasure.

We tried both of the evening’s specials: a squeaky fresh apple salad ($7) with greens and pungent mint and the luscious crabmeat croquettes ($12). The salad was beautiful as well as delicious. The centerpiece, juicy Fuji apples, arrived as rings. The croquettes left average crab cakes at the starting line. Soft and tender inside and crisp outside, they launched our meal with an exclamation point.

The Spanish tortilla looked like a piece of pie or a high-rising quiche. The taste resembled a grand combination of eggs and potato topped with a flavorful bright red Romesco sauce from slightly sweet red peppers. I was surprised to find it served room temperature. Heat this a bit, and I’d love it for breakfast ($3 as a happy hour special; regularly $6). Another big hit at our table were the baby artichokes marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and spices, sliced in half and grilled. Simple and fabulous ($12).

We ordered two sandwich-like choices, the “Bocadillos de Jamon,” tasty salty Serrano ham on a fresh miniature roll with a bit of lettuce. Simple and delicious ($4 as a happy hour special; regularly $8). I liked the “Serranitos” even better. These open-faced sandwiches highlighted braised pork shoulder finished with a bit of mild, roasted chile atop a slice of toasted baguette. Lovely!

After the little bites to soothe and prime our appetites, we shared a small paella ($24) presented in a black metal skillet. Taberna does a fine version of this classic Spanish dish, with mussels, scallops, chewy, spicy chorizo and piece of chicken meat served atop a bed of rice with peas and tomatoes.

The food was well-paced, without everything arriving at once. Tapas came two at a time with the paella arriving last. The only section of the menu we didn’t try is devoted to grilled meats, fish and vegetables.

In addition to the food, I like the simple, minimalist look of the place with the long bar on the north wall the main decoration. Besides the loud buzz of boisterous conversation, an accordion player serenaded us during happy hour. I’m all for live music, but the squeeze box made the room too loud for conversation at our table.

Taberna doesn’t accept reservations and, like its sister restaurant La Boca just around the corner on Marcy Street, draws a crowd. We were lucky on our second visit; a party of four had just left. The first time, hungry friends and I balked at the half-hour wait. Taberna, or “Tavern,” seats 42 inside, with standing room to wait for a table at the bar.

Taberna is a good place to eat if your New Year’s resolutions have “moderation” as a theme. You can eat well here without eating too much and without spending a fortune. Our dinner for four was $69 without wine

La Taberna isn’t the place to come if you want a traditional entree and quiet conversation. But if your energy – physical and psychic – needs a recharge complete with good food and congenial service, I recommend it.

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