First Bite: Albarino

Tasty tapas on tap in Shrewsbury.

It’s a weekday night and though Albarino is not filled, it’s buzzing. At both the L-shaped bar and the tables that surround it, there are folk sipping wines and cocktails and dabbing forks at plates of tapas that sashaying servers deliver from the kitchen.

It’s a true tapas place, this vision the Princeton-centric Terra Momo Group brought east to Shrewsbury, where cuisines Italian and Asian long have reigned. Indeed, there are but two entrees listed on Albarino’s menu, plus two paellas that require a minimum of two people to order at any given table. Then there is a long list of small plates with Spanish pedigrees, ranging from salads and soups to charcuterie, to snacks and full-throttle tapas with names familiar to anyone who has followed a tapas trail in Spain.

What is most noteworthy about Albarino is its well-structured wine list, which pays respect to wine regions in Spain both major and minor. If you’ve been wanting to explore the wines of Spain without having your passport stamped, do it here at Albarino by taking advantage of its flights of wine: varying sample-size pours grouped in threes to offer education by comparison. These change regularly, our servers told us. So whenever you start Albarino Wine School, you’ll have a fresh set to try.

Then, pick your tapas partners.

Albarino, which opened early this fall, still seems to be gauging local tastes. The best of what we sampled is terrific stuff, riffing just enough on the classics to show voice and confidence. Other small plates lacked vigor or technical precision.

In competition for my personal dish-of-the-year honors are the huevos diablo, a take on deviled eggs that should be on everyone’s list of hors d’oevures fit for cocktail hour. Spiraling up from the deviled part of the halved egg are rosettes of serrano; scattered in the middle of the plate are little pickled guindilla chilies. They’re not hot, at all, but they’re loaded with vinegary zing and prove the perfect counterpoint to the rich egg-and-ham combo. Bravo.

Huevos diablo

I wish I could say bravo to the patatas bravas, potatoes that, here, are served in long, spear-like wedges awash in a bland tomato sauce and also-bland aioli. Though patatas bravas vary by region in Spain, they typically have a bite—from a kick of vinegar or hot pimenton or chilies, or a combo of these—in the tomato sauce. I’ve had them fiery, I’ve had them feisty, I’ve had them topped with crumbled chorizo to add oomph. Albarino’s needs something to lift it above the level of french fries and ketchup.

Patatas bravas

Two other dishes need work: The beef empanada’s pastry was tough, taking away from the filling of good ground meat, and the accompanying pebre sauce lacked the vitality that comes from necessary cilantro dominance. This one’s more about onions and parlsey. Stuffed piquillos emphasize eggplant over goat’s cheese in the stuffing. It’s mushy, pasty and dull. These super-sweet roasted red peppers deserve better.

Stuffed piquillos

But the octopus, a signature dish at Albarino, shows what the kitchen can do. Both the mullusk and the accompanying orbs of onions benefit from streaks of char, while coins of potato took a liking to a plush saffron-laced aioli. The billed green olives missed our serving—and I missed them. But what was there was choice.

Octopus

We had a nifty little almond cake, moist and not too sweet, served with a swoosh of caramel sauce and a quenelle-shaped topper of vanilla-infused whipped cream. I’d give it a second go in a heartbeat.

Almond cake

I’d do the same for Albarino in general: Its mission is right, its staff prepared, its setting lively, what with bright blue seat cushions popping out of the wood-and-white interior from bar stools and chairs. It’s exactly what the neighborhood needs: a place to pop in for drinks and bites. Those bites just need to be amped up to do right by local tastes.

Albarino, 508 Broad Street in The Grove West, Shrewsbury. Open weekdays for lunch and dinner; for dinner only Saturday and Sunday. 732-852-2640; albarinorestaurant.com.

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