February 6, 2003

Finger Lake'n Good

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Spain. Land of matadors, flowered dresses, azure-blue oceans, and the endless rolls of burnt-sienna hills surpassed only by an inhabitant’s pronunciation of a double ‘r’ on a cooling summer night. Every shade of earthy, passionate red you can imagine.

On a typically cold and wet Ithaca February evening, those warm tones may seem hopelessly far away, banished to mythical “temperate” climes by frozen grays that stubbornly deny any existence of global warming. And so, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a distinctively Spanish experience to be had in the heart of our own town.

It was on Saturday night that a couple of amigos and I (sin amigas, alas) walked into Just A Taste Wine and Tapas bar to appreciate that experience. And Just A Taste delivered — in the form of an extensive wine list (noted for presenting more than 40 wines by the glass), an international selection of beers, and an evolving menu of tapas items more varied and extensive than those to be found in Seville or Barcelona by any limited-income students.

For anyone unfamiliar with the tradition, tapas are appetizer-like dishes such as calamari, various other seafood, cheese in many forms and vegetables. They can be rudimentary bread and cheese to inedible gourmet concoctions. Hip Spaniards will visit a bar or two around 6p.m., to eat tapas and drink sherry or sangria — sometimes as a complete supper, and sometimes before proceeding to a continental-style late dinner.

In the small restaurant, the three of us were seated quickly, and soon we were passing around the Spanish ‘Flight’ of wines, one brilliant concept that Just a Taste offers. A flight is a set of four or five wines in “taster” quantities that a couple or group of people can share in order to sample a variety of wines. There are flights from France, Italy, Spain, and the Finger Lakes region, among others.

Our tapas arrived, and women began warming the backs of our necks (even as the backs of our necks faced a damp and distinctly unsensual Aurora Street). We had some great foccaccia:freshly baked, light, and soft in the middle, and served with roasted garlic cloves and olive oil. Another impressive dish was distinctively European — baked Brie cheese with sliced melon, to be eaten together on a thin piece of cracker. However it may sound, this combination is surprisingly good and at Just A Taste it is no exception. We were slightly less impressed with a plate of mahi mahi served under sliced Portobello mushrooms and a potato-based mash — it came with a nice texture, but the taste seemed bland next to our wines (red — maybe the source of the problem).

A warning to other poor college students: Just A Taste could be expensive, especially for diners making a meal out of tapas-sized dishes. Between two and three tapas portions each, at $5.00 a go, plus wine and dessert, can add up quickly. My two companions and I spent over $50, and two of us had already eaten one dinner. But consensus at my table was that Just A Taste would make an ideal date stop, for drinks or for dinner. Though the openness of the one-room restaurant creates an exposed environment, the variety and small quantities of food and wine will provide instant conversation for even the most bashful of couples.

I remembered Spanish sangria as almost unpleasantly strong, with pieces and seeds of orange and lime floating around in it — it took some getting used to. In contrast, the sangria at Just A Taste is a work of art. The red wine and ice, citrus fruits, and spices combine as only the ingredients of remarkable foods do, in such a way that you can taste each element while smelling the whole. The sangria alone is worth the trip.

What Just A Taste accomplishes with its distinct Spanish-yet-delicious combination is that cosmopolitan modernity to be found mainly in the ethnic restaurants of the great cities of the world, where traditsion and experimentation combine to form a time-honored — and at the same time brand new — experience. Just A Taste’s websites, complete with sample menu, can be found at www.just-a-taste.com. Salud!

Archived article by Chris Wells