The rain in Spain
Aioli Bodega Española808 Second St.
Davis, CA 95616
I tend to think of Spanish food as something summery and casual, just the thing for long evenings spent drinking sangria in the warm twilight after hot Spanish days and a long siesta. But the truth is that a lot of Spanish dishes, even the tapas, are warming, stick-to-your ribs fare, just right for fall and winter rather than a Mediterranean summer. I was reminded of this seeming paradox when dining at the new Aioli Bodega Española in Davis (a close analogue of the flagship Sacramento branch of the restaurant), where a lot of the most appealing menu options have a hearty quality that makes them just right for the chillier days we’ve been experiencing of late.
In fact, the very interior feels warming and cozy, in an upscale sort of way. Dimly lit and glowing with candles, the restaurant has the sort of flattering golden light that feels like fall, against a backdrop of dark wood beams, rustic but appealing burlap tablecloths (topped with paper), and aubergine and apricot walls. Funky little touches included behind-the-bar wine storage made from square concrete blocks and dangling candleholders of wine glasses suspended in twirls of copper wire, which added to the pleasant ambience.
Even more pleasant was the welcoming and personal feel of the service. Our waiter was enthusiastic without being overbearing and was helpfully opinionated—when asked, anyway—about the food and wine. He unhesitatingly recommended one Tempranillo over another (there’s an excellent wine list, unsurprisingly heavy on interesting Spanish choices) and gave his seemingly sincere advice about the best dishes when we were choosing between a couple of different tapas. Service did, however, slow down considerably at the end of the meal. The restaurant was not full when we were there, and yet it seemed understaffed by the time we left. A few faces had disappeared, and I had the feeling the restaurant had sent some staff home, so getting dessert and our check dragged considerably.
Aioli’s menu leans heavily toward tapas, dividing its list into cold and hot options. There are familiar classics, such as patatas bravas or shrimp al ajillo, and those you might not see as often, like pork ribs or merguez sausage; the latter indicates a leaning toward North African touches. The entree list, however, is also well worth investigating, with a number of intriguing items, such as braised lamb shank with flageolets, zarzuela (Spanish fish stew) and paella—a for-two presentation that takes nearly 40 minutes to prepare.
We started with a round of tapas—our server recommended three, if we were going to order and share an entree—and a salad, and then we moved on to split an entree of duck with a port sauce. The salad we tried combined endive with Cabrales (Spanish blue cheese) in a surprisingly refined presentation, with delicate shreds of leaves and little crumbles of cheese studded with crunchy, toasted sliced almonds. Very lightly dressed, it was an appetite-whetting way to start the meal.
Next came a cold tapa of white beans and seared tuna. This dish had some slight textural problems; it was a little mushy all over. Despite a strong presence of olives, the flavor was muted, but the fish was savory, meaty and fresh. I liked the puerco castilla, a small hot dish of braised pork cubes in a raisiny sauce that was sweet but earthy and complex. The sauce was good for sopping up with bread, as was the steaming liquid from our other tapas dish, steamed clams, or berberechos con azafran. We had hesitated between ordering a steamed mussel dish with a sherry cream sauce, but they were out of mussels—and our server confided that the clams were “so much better anyway.” (The kitchen was also out of octopus and some other seafood.) The tender clams were certainly interesting and distinctive. Their somewhat medicinal-tasting saffron broth was tempered by slivered mint leaves and enormous amounts of chopped garlic—so much that it filled the empty sides of some of the clamshells.
The duck, dark and rich with a hint of cinnamon, was a definite departure in style. The tender meat and sweet honey-glazed skin really came alive when dunked in the port sauce pooled below the big piece of poultry. I didn’t really care for the patatas bravas that came alongside. They had a soft texture, and the spicy tomato sauce was jarring alongside the duck; crisp fried potatoes would have gone better. Green beans (substituted for the spinach the kitchen usually uses) were a better pairing.
The dessert menu is unfortunately a little dull, with fairly predictable options such as flan. I was full and could have happily skipped dessert, but my husband opted for the dark-chocolate truffles in a white-chocolate “sopa.” Rather than being soup-like, this was really a cloying, oddly textured sauce. The truffles themselves were a little grainy (I thought I saw some flecks of cold, unincorporated butter), though they did have a yummy, deep chocolate flavor.
Really, though, who goes to a Spanish restaurant for dessert? You go for tapas, and that’s the reason to visit Aioli Bodega Española—even, or maybe especially, on a chilly evening when you can warm up with the flavors of Spain.