November 7, 2012

Tapas on Tap: Just a Taste Hits the Spot

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There’s usually a weird emotional attachment between a customer and the dish he or she orders; in the moment, a full entrée is a pretty big commitment, beginning at the waiter’s notepad and lasting to the bitter (or hopefully delicious) end. So naturally, as customers, we often feel the need to convince ourselves that we went with the best possible option, that our choice was not in vain, even if that chicken parm our buddy got has been staring daggers at us from across the table the entire time (hey, it’s your own fault for picking the eggplant casserole). This all makes for an oddly competitive environment at most dinner tables, where everyone is vying for Top Pick (“No no, you HAVE to try mine …”). The beauty of tapas is that they rather elegantly solve this problem. And few tapas are prepared quite as elegantly as those at Just a Taste, a trendy tapas and wine bar that is surely one of Ithaca’s best and most unique eateries.

Tucked away in a cozy nook of Ithaca’s premier dining district downtown, Just a Taste offers up a chic, candlelit interior, with walls lined with fancy wine bottles (most of them available by the glass) and sells local artwork (who says yummy food and postmodern-expressionism don’t go hand in hand?). As the Ithaca cold reigned outside, I found myself incredibly warm and comfortable, enveloped in dampened lighting and the good cheer of other people who were also warm and comfortable.

The place boasts a cuisine to match its eclectic decor, with a daunting variety of menu options ranging from house-made focaccia with olive oil to succulent chicken wings to a platter of clams steamed in white wine with garlic. The frequently changing menu ensures a different experience with each visit. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, unlike in most entrée-oriented restaurants, you and your group are wonderfully unrestrained in what you order, and very fair pricing (between $3-$10 per tapa) means that you can order a lot.

My friends and I certainly took this to heart; the dishes we ordered slowly trickled out one by one all through the evening, creating an unending chain of new tastes and textures, and as we passed each one around the table, spooning scoops onto our smaller plates, we marveled collectively at the delicate and attractive presentation of each dish.

Throughout the course of the meal, I don’t believe there was a single dish that was not universally lauded by the group (although there were certainly some stand-outs). The fried polenta that was served with the house-made linguisa sausage melted so beautifully in my mouth that I teared up; the pan-fried scallops in pepperonata were encased in a beautiful crust that gently flaked at the touch of a fork, and the garlic braised greens with tomatoes, walnuts, Stilton cheese and sherry vinegar, an establishment favorite, was simply sans pareil. Even the chicken wings, a seemingly simple and straightforward item, presented complex tangs of curry and spices. The flavors were varied, and often surprising, inciting communal yummy sounds around the table. In fact, the chicken liver-apricot mousse that came with the charcuterie meat platter was so tasty that after dinner, my friend searched frantically around Wegmans for something that even remotely resembled it (alas, naught a daub), a detail that accentuates the utter uniqueness of this dining experience.

Our evening came to a sweet, buttery close with an order of warm banana-nut-bourbon bread pudding with caramel sauce and a shortcake with a fruity compote, both of which were smothered in a thick whipped cream. The shortcake was great, although a tad dry; however, after one small bite of the bread pudding, everyone at our table stared at each other in disbelief of the sheer magnitude of its lusciousness.

See, whereas an entrée is like a marriage, tapas are like a series of one-night stands: they offer mixed results without the harrowing pressure to finish what one’s started. Also, by inherently implying that everyone is going to try every dish, they successfully eliminate the need to shove your own food down other people’s throats just for some self-validation, allowing the focus of the night to lie solely on the food, the conversation, and the people you’re with.

As a student, or any person for that matter, it is very easy to become trapped in one’s own hermetic dining bubble; it’s easy to forget that Ithaca is a town with a large supply of wonderful, inventive restaurants that are constantly challenging the notion of traditional dining. Just a Taste reinforced both my love of food and my love for Ithaca. The food here is eaten together, discussed together and enjoyed together. I enjoyed every minute of my time at Just a Taste. Simply put, this restaurant is good. Really, really good.

Original Author: Jacob Lifton