When walking along 21st street, between Chestnut and Walnut, it can be easy to stroll right by Tinto, a charming Spanish restaurant located at 21st and Sansom. However, once inside, all the visions of the hectic daytime shoppers, dog-walkers, children, and businessmen from the Rittenhouse square area vanish as you’re whisked away into the charming Basque-inspired creation of chef Jose Garces. Tinto, named for a Spanish word which simply refers to red wine, is anything but simple—although the family-like vibe of the wine cellar, a casual combination of rustic and modern, would have you thinking otherwise.
When Chef Jose Garces set out to make Tinto, he wanted to convey the passion the people of Basque Country have for their food and wine. An experience at the restaurant will not only prove him successful, it will allow diners to experience this passion for themselves.. The Basque region, which is located in northern Spain and borders southern France, is very geographically fortunate. Sandwiched between the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea, it is also home to the mountainous terrain of the Pyrenees. These elements make the area produce some of the world’s most alluring cuisine. Chef Jose Garces took the dynamic nature of the Basque region, bottled it and brought it to Philadelphia in a cozy restaurant called Tinto.
When entering Tinto, the first thing I notice is the array of framed T-shaped corkscrews lining the entranceway, many with handles that resemble such varied items as bottle openers, jackknives, liberty bells, golf balls. My guest and I take a step up into the dining area to find a perfect wine cellar simulation. Handcrafted wooden wine racks filled with various wine bottles frame the room, and a rustic yet classy black-and-white tiled bar seats about 12 people. The hostess, Shannon, greets us politely, shows us to our seats with a smile, and takes our coats. I choose the chair facing the open kitchen—situated visibly yet discreetly near the wall opposite the door—so I can watch the masters at work.
The soothing, quaint sounds of electro-jazz fusion dance lightly over black, wooden, high-top tables, which have room for no more than four people. The music combined with the lightly flickering candles in the middle of each table provides a romantic ambiance, which could also be conducive to the lone diner looking for an unobtrusive place to experience taste bud stimulation. If in the mood for something more spacious and casual, there’s also a dimly lit lounge downstairs with plush couches and black laminate tables where one can kick back and enjoy everything Garces has to offer.
Our waitress, Nicole, greets us immediately with food and wine menus. The wine list is extensive, with over 50 varieties of reds and whites from southwestern France and northern Spain, as well as cava. As a red wine fan, I scan the wide-ranging selection of Tempranillos. When we ask for something with a medium to light body, somewhat dry with a wet finish, Nicole knowledgeably suggests two Tempranillos. Her initial suggestion is a Bodegas la Bastida Rioja Crianza ’03 and a Merlot Vi DiNulles Tarragona’05, a Tempranillo-Merlot blend, which she informs us is a bit heavier. We go with her gut instinct, which caters to our cravings flawlessly.
We have barely glanced at the food menu when Nicole places Majon Crisps with a smoked tomato crème fraîche dip on our table. The dip is refreshing, and the crisps—crunchy, flaky, churro-style snacks with a hint of cheese flavor— are a stimulating alternative to the usual bread and butter.
The menu is divided into several sections that cover meats, cheeses, fish, desserts, and of course a variety of different pintxos (pronounced peen-chose), the Basque version of the more internationally known Spanish tapa. The dishes are served in appetizer proportions and it is customary to try several of them.
Our first order, to accompany the wine, is from the Cheeses section. We choose the Mixto plate, a variety of three cheeses, all made from sheep’s milk and served in one-ounce portions each. Nicole brings them out almost immediately and sets them on the table. They are arranged in order from soft to hard: soft Bleu de Basque, an especially robust bleu cheese; slightly harder Idiazaball, a smoked and unpasteurized cheese similar to Manchego; and the most solid and pasteurized, Abbaye de Belloc, with a Parmesan-esque flavor. The plate is served with sliced apples and a small portion of apricot pate and drizzled with a sweet honey-paprika glaze. When spread on the rosemary crackers and sliced baguette that come with the dish, the vivacious variety of flavors and textures is pleasantly and surprisingly overwhelming.
Next, we order some items from the Pintxos portion of the menu. First, Nicole brings out the Brocheta de Gambas (skewer of shrimp). The shrimp, served authentically a la España, complete with eyes and antennas, is skewered with sausage, grape tomato, and espelette chile. Drizzled with parsley oil with a creamy lemon aioli for dipping, the dish possesses all the primary elements of flavor. While the parsley oil provides sweetness, the chile is spicy and the lemon aioli contributes the perfect amount of sour and creamy. Not to mention the texture! The sausage is juicy and tender, the shrimp a bit tougher and the tomato supplies the soft, refreshing aspect. Although the portion is small, the flavor lingers long after digestion.
The second Pintxos item to arrive at the table is the Montadito de Txangurro a la Vasca. This is an open-faced sandwich, served on a small, yet thick, slice of French bread topped with a jumbo lump crab salad and a relatively hefty slice of avocado. Laced with the flavors of Espelette chile, paprika, and the perfect amount of salt, the chilled, refreshing flavor automatically transports me to a fantasy of snacking on pintxos on a summer day in Spain. Although more subtle in flavor than the other dishes, the refreshing flavor, the sprinkle of spices, and the soft avocado wedge really bring everything together. Again, Chef Jose Garces finds the perfect combination of texture and flavor.
While our taste buds have had more than their fair share of excitement, our appetites have only been tantalized. Luckily, there’s room for more! Nicole replaces our plates and silverware, as we decide on what to indulge in next. The combination of red wine, soothing music, and surreal Spanish atmosphere elicit euphoric sighs and smiles from both my companion and I. With some help from Nicole, we decide on two more menu items. We order one from the Verdura (vegetable) section and one from the Carne (meat), having experienced our fair share of cheese and seafood-based dishes.
Arroz Bomba comes out first-- a rich, creamy combination of morel mushroom and bomba rice, similar to a wild mushroom risotto but with a barley flavor, green asparagus, and lemon oil. The hearty combination of rice, asparagus, mushroom, and cream is almost at risk of being bland. However, the lemon oil and a touch of salt really make the mushroom and asparagus jump straight from my fork to my mouth and linger there well after I finish chewing. At this point, I’m beginning to anticipate potential satiation, but my taste buds won’t have it. They’re begging for more.
Finally, Nicole brings the Sopa de Castano. Presented in an asymmetrical white ceramic bowl, a duck and mushroom hash blended with pistachio rests beneath a tower of delicately sliced bacon strips with a quail egg nestled on top. Next to the bowl is a pot of chestnut soup, which Nicole elegantly pours over the dish. Splitting the dish in two is almost heartbreaking, especially considering the adornment of the quail egg. However, watching the yolk slowly, yet carelessly pour out into the dish is vicariously liberating. The broth, nutty and creamy with a sweet aftertaste, is surprisingly rich. The bacon, in combination with the yolk, adds a hearty aspect, while the pistachio gives it an Arabian-style dessert flavor. Although the initial taste, texture, and all logic categorize it as an entree, the sweetness resonates on the tongue like a fine dessert.
When asked if, in fact, we are interested in dessert, we decline, informing Nicole that our sweet tooths have been satisfied. Instead, we ask for cognac. Nicole shakes her head, informing us that, quite loyally to its theme, Tinto only has armagnac, an older and more authentic form of brandy. It is fittingly from the southwest region of France, as opposed to cognac, which originates in central France. The sweet yet robust flavor of our after-dinner drinks, accompanied by the variety of rich Basque cuisine lingering on our taste buds blinds us to the blow of the bill.
Although definitely worth it for the atmosphere, food, wine, service, and authenticity, the delicious pintxos of Chef Jose Garces can catch up with you and your budget! However, if you want to enjoy a delectable experience, impress a loved one, or just stop by for a pintxo and a glass of tinto, don’t miss the charming little wine cellar located at 21st and Sansom. Because, although you can pass by it if you’ve never been there; once you have been inside, you will never overlook it again. Guaranteed.