Dining Review: Palo Tapas Bar

The Providence newcomer is a culinary love letter to southern Spain.
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Quesos y embutidos. Photography by Angel Tucker.

Samir Zaiter, owner of Palo Tapas Bar, isn’t interested in riffs as much as romance — his love affair with Southern Spain so pronounced that he left corporate America in pursuit of a culinary homage. In the midst of a prolonged restaurant crisis, Zaiter has taken over the old 3 Steeple Street space and turned it into a cross-cultural mecca. The building — one of the state’s oldest industrial-related examples — is roughly 200 years old and its history shows in dense aesthetics. Zaiter has accentuated its Colonial roots — exposed stone and iron piping — with Spanish posters and Moorish textiles. The space is moody in all the right ways, a vision of intimacy desperately longed for.

The menu is also imbedded in the past but fully ensconced in Andalusian products and preparations. To call it tapas is almost a misnomer in that dishes are far more than bite-sized and, in some cases, lavish. Building a meat and cheese board is an exercise in design as wedges of Manchego, wine-steeped goat cheese and ribbons of Serrano come decorated with a panoply of sides. Apricot mustard, caramelized onions, pepper jelly, Marcona almonds, dried cherries: The amalgam is an artist’s palette of the world’s best bites. Even in a time when the ritual of dinner is slightly marred by the temporary use of paper plates, Palo manages to make dinner elegiac.

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Ropa vieja canaria. photography by Angel Tucker.

But to eat the kitchen’s warm tapas is to feel the Spanish sun on your face and to hear flamenco vibrating under your skin. Zaiter is intent on proving that this is the world’s most romantic food — rich with Rioja and garlic — and it’s pointless to argue with him. Besides, why would you want to when the menu gives you a season pass on all things meat? Grape leaves (hojas rellenas) are stuffed with ground beef and topped with tangy pomegranate molasses ($10); croquettes are stuffed with chunks of chorizo and served alongside quince jam ($8); meatballs (albondigas) lounge in a tomato sauce tinged with sweet, perfumed spices ($10). If you’re intent on proving that you can eat anything without regret, then it’s right to torreznos ($10), deep fried cubes of bacon that taste like pork croutons and European gluttony.

The scent of Zaiter’s Harlequin novel is indisputably garlic and it never loses its appeal. Pan con tomate ($7) is the Platonic toast: charred, slightly soft and riddled with garlic. It’s outdone only by gambas al ajillo ($12), a shrimp and sherry stew from which garlic ghosts rise in celebration out of the smoke. If you think potatoes and hamburgers are comfort food prototypes, it’s time to travel virtually as the Spaniards wrote the manual centuries ago. For those who remain skeptical, meals end with doughnut-shaped churros with cinnamon sugar and chocolate sauce sidekicks.

Who would have thought that a centuries-old New England building would be brought back to life by a Spanish ode? Well, Neruda probably did and he speaks for Palo when he praises the ubiquitous onion: vive la fragancia de la tierra/en tu naturaleza cristalina… the fragrance of the earth lives/in your crystalline nature. All hail the poetry of food.

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Gambas al ajillo. Photography by Angel Tucker.

 

3 Steeple St., Providence, 414-7610, paloprovidence.com.

Must get: Meat and cheese board, gambas al ajillo (shrimp and garlic), ropa vieja canaria (braised lamb with peppers and olives).

Capacity:Based on social distancing requirements.