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Tapas: Instant Gratification : Two new restaurants where a tostada is a piece of toast

Tasca, 6266 1/2 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood. (213) 465-7747. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner; for dinner only on Sunday. Full bar. Street parking. American Express, Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two (food only): $25-$50.

From Spain, 11510 West Pico Boulevard, W. Los Angeles. (213) 479-6740. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner only. This week only: open Sunday, closed Monday. Beer and wine. Street parking (difficult). All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two (food only): $25-$45.

There are three important things to remember about tapas , the so-called “little bites” of Spain:

(1) They aren’t dinner. The word tapa itself derives from the verb tapar, to cover or stop up, and the original tapas were light snacks served on little plates set on top of glasses of sherry, wine or beer--to keep the flies out, it is said. Though the definition of tapas has widened considerably over the years, tapas are still basically bar food--the Spanish version of peanuts and hard-boiled eggs, if you will.

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(2) With the exception of certain specialty items (mountain ham, fresh prawns and the like) tapas don’t cost very much. If it sets you back as much as $5 or $6 a serving, chances are it ain’t no tapa.

(3) To paraphrase Lawrence Durrell, instantaneousness is implicit in tapas as gravitation is inherent in mass. In other words, tapas are not cooked to order. They’re already there--on or behind the bar--at room temperature. You see something you want, you point to it and it appears magically on a plate in front of you. Tapas are instant gratification.

On the basis of these criteria, the new Spanish restaurant in Hollywood called Tasca (a tasca is a tapas bar) doesn’t fare very well. It cooks most of its tapas to order, charges as much as $5 or $6 for at least some of them and encourages patrons to make a whole dinner of them. But owner Rafael Gordon and chef Eduardo Apitz do serve Spanish and nearly-Spanish food that is as good as any I’ve had in Los Angeles--and if it isn’t absolutely authentic, well, who cares?

The best way to approach Tasca (not to be confused with La Tasca, farther east on Sunset) is to go with a party of four or more. Order six or eight dishes that sound appealing (the menu descriptions are detailed and reasonably accurate); reorder the ones you like and add a few new choices. Keep on going until you’ve had enough, and then stop.

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There’s no real structure to a meal like this, no beginning/middle/end. It’s just one delicious, vividly flavored “little bite” of something after another. For instance (and I list them in run-on order because that’s exactly how the diner at Tasca will encounter them): calamares a la romana , fried squid that’s tender, light, crisp, not greasy in the least . . . sweet red peppers, either roasted in an olive-oil dressing or sauteed with oil and garlic . . . mild, creamy salt cod and potato fritters ( croquetas de bacalao ) with an unusual sauce of champagne, butter and assorted fresh herbs that seems to have almost the flavor of fresh peas . . . pulpo , or octopus, in two forms, marinated in vinaigrette and braised a la gallega in a nicely-rounded but not very spicy paprika sauce . . . unusual empanadas , stuffed either with shredded chicken or ground lamb, the latter mixed with pine nuts and raisins and both tasting almost (East) Indian in their attractive, sweetish pungency . . . extraordinary boquerones , small white-fleshed anchovies pickled with plenty of garlic and the quick bite of hot red pepper . . . a credible if not exceptional wedge of tortilla Espanola , the firm potato omelette that is practically the national dish of Spain . . . the popular Venezuelan hors d’oeuvre known as tequenos , sticks of cotija cheese dipped in batter and deep-fried . . . an agreeable mushlike salad of eggplant, garlic and tomato . . . and, finally, a surprisingly delicious potato salad, patatas con alcaparras y aneldo , flavored with capers, dill and orange juice.

Among the more substantial non- tapas offered are pescado a la andaluza made with sea bass of passable quality and perfectly deep-fried (on the basis of this dish and the aforementioned calamares , it seems safe to say that chef Apitz understands the craft of deep-frying unusually well), and an item rather portentiously named “El Cordero,” or “The Lamb,” which is lamb loin stuffed with ham, spinach and Manchego cheese cut into rounds and arranged atop a large, thin lengthwise slice of eggplant sauteed in a cilantro and basil batter. The whole thing is moistened with a serious red wine sauce. When a group of us ordered two portions of The Lamb one evening, the meat in one case came out with a musty left-over-in-the-refrigerator taste; in the other case, the dish was fresh and wonderful.

The wine list is perfunctory but fairly priced (1986 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay at $20 and 1984 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $22 are the most expensive table wines). Unfortunately, it offers only four Spanish wines (not counting sherry), none particularly distinguished--plus a drinkable Chardonnay and Cabernet from Chile (at $13 and $15, respectively).

The dining room is blessedly free from the usual Spanish-restaurant cliches (bullfight posters, wrought-iron gratings, etc.). Instead it has a clean, pleasantly rustic look, with whitewashed walls, red tile floors, and beam ceilings--a nice place to relax as the tapas issue forth.

Recommended dishes: patatas con alcaparras y aneldo ($2.95), pulpo a la gallega ($3.95), boquerones en vinagre ($3.95), croquetas de bacalao ($4.55), calamares a la romana ($4.95), empanadas ($5.95), El Cordero ($8.95).

Another new addition to the city’s small Spanish restaurant population is a simple storefront in West Los Angeles called From Spain. Here, there are bullfight posters (and photos) on the wall as part of a functional decor that includes pistachio-green polyester tableclothes and auditorium-style folding chairs. The chef and owner of the place is Juan Rodriguez, who hails from Badalona, a seaside town a few miles from Barcelona. For a time, he cooked at the now-closed Barcelona restaurant in Santa Monica and then at Miami Spice, a flashy Cuban place in Venice.

Rodriguez marks a portion of his menu tapas , but From Spain is more a conventional restaurant than a tapas bar, and the dishes so identified serve very well as just plain appetizers. Some of them are very good--for instance, delicious medium-sized mussels, well-cleaned and glazed with cream and white wine; a dish identified as boquerones a la plancha, not the tiny anchovylike fish mentioned above but fresh sardines--truly a delicious variety of fish--grilled perfectly and scattered with bits of well-browned garlic; and some excellent Spanish-style chorizo sausage (from a producer in San Jose, Calif.), thinly sliced and sauteed in olive oil. The roasted red peppers are just fine, too, but the anchovies that supposedly accompany them have been applied with a very light hand. Pan con jamon, literally “bread with ham,” which is, in fact, the ubiquitous Catalan snack of bread rubbed with the cut side of a fresh half-tomato, seasoned with olive oil and salt and served with ham or anchovies, is made with very good bread and very good ham (also from San Jose)-- but the bread, on at least one occasion, was dry, as if the tomatoes weren’t juicy enough and the oil had perhaps been added by the same person responsible for putting anchovies on the roasted pepper.

From Spain offers a number of fish and seafood dishes as main courses (i.e., grilled baby salmon with spicy tomato sauce and a version of the Catalan seafood stew called sarsuela), but the kitchen seems more confident with such straightforward, hearty meat dishes as chuletas de puerco, chewy but flavorful grilled pork chops with a sweet red pepper sauce; chuletas de cordero, grilled thin lamb chops with a wonderfully intense alioli (a sort of garlic mayonnaise) on the side, or an occasional special of cochinillo, crisp roasted suckling pig, served in ample quantity to the accompaniment of a plate of roasted peppers. Crema Catalana, the Catalan version of creme brulee, is appropriately crisp on top and creamy underneath.

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Torres house wines--red, white, and rose--at $12 a bottle accompany the food here more than adequately, but a small selection of other good Spanish vintages is offered--including 1983 C.U.N.E. Rioja at $16, 1971 Marques de Carceres Rioja Riserva at $29, and 1971 Torres Gran Coronas Black Label at $40.

Recommended dishes: chorizo frito ($4.50), boquerones a la plancha ($4.95), chuletas de puerco ($9.95), chuletas de cordero ($13.95), cochinillo ($15.95), crema Catalana ($2.95).


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