\Certainly no one expected the monsoon-like rain storm and hail that smashed across Westport Road in February, dealing Artesano Vino Tapas y Mas a damaged roof and flooded dining room. The repair job took about two months, and the occasion for a reboot prompted a new look, some new dishes, and a new executive chef, Brian Curry, who came over from Napa River Grill to tweak the menu and oversee Artesano’s April reopening.
We dropped in the other night with a group of friends, and I’m delighted to report that the new Artesano is just as good as ever, maybe even a small step up the evolutionary ladder. Its cool Euro-style vibe with red accents wasn’t washed out by the rain, and the main dining-room layout looks inviting with long banquettes arranged in a large square. White walls are spotted with black bull’s heads and photos from Spain (including a gallery of bullfighting photos that some might find disturbing). Sturdy wooden tables are set with quality silverware, white cloth napkins and shiny white plates.
The menu still focuses on tapas, of course, and it does a good job of riffing on the traditional snack of Jerez, Spain, where the dish was created to provide a cover or top (“tapa”) to help keep the flies out of one’s copa, a small glass filled with delicious sweet Sherry wine. Nowadays the tradition has spread worldwide, and now everyone mostly loads up on small plates and skips the Sherry.
You’ll find a good choice of tapas on the Artesano menu, of course: eight of them, all rooted in Spain, ranging in price from $8 (for patatas bravas, Artesano’s take on crispy fries with spicy brava sauce and garlicky aioli) to $14 (for roasted octopus with fregola pasta salad and more). Extending the tapas selection are interesting salads ($8 to $12); skewers and topped flatbreads ($10 to $13); and a charcuterie plate that you can build with your choice of Spanish meats and cheeses at $7 per cheese, $9 per meat, or $23 for the full chef’s sampler board.
If you prefer to skip the whole small-plate thing and fill up on a large plate instead, seven full-size entrees range from $16 (for the house-ground sirloin burger with Spanish Tetilla cheese) to $25 (for costilla de cerdo, a pork chop stuffed with Mahon cheese and wrapped in serrano ham).
The drinks list is short but well-chosen, with about two dozen wines from Spain and Latin America, a short list of beers, house cocktails and sangrias. We grabbed tall, sweet and cooling white-rum-based mojitos ($10) and sipped them through the meal.
We arrived just in time to grab quick apps from the happy hour menu. Garbanzo “popcorn” ($5) was addictive. Crispy, crunchy fried garbanzo beans were tossed in pimenton de la vera (piquant smoked paprika) to make them even more interesting. It was hard to eat just a few.
Goat cheese al horno ($7), a new menu item, hit the spot too. Four rounds of mild goat cheese were roasted in spicy-tangy herbed tomato sauce in a small metal dish until the cheese was molten and the sauce bubbly. It came with strips of crisp flatbread.
Grilled asparagus ($8) was a treat: short asparagus spears were cooked bright green and just tender, topped with romesco sauce, a traditional Spanish condiment of red peppers, tomatoes, pine nuts and almonds.
Paella de hongo ($17) brings funghi to the paella pan with three kinds of wild mushrooms – shiitake, crimini and trumpet ‘shrooms – cut in bite-size, meaty chunks and blanketed with slices of melted Manchego cheese atop a bowl of tender, savory rice and tiny, piquant red and yellow drop peppers, all garnished with roasted cherry tomatoes and a nest of asparagus shaved paper-thin. It all added up to a stunning combination of flavors.
Lomo con papas ($22), pictured above, a picanha (sirloin cap) steak, was cooked exactly as ordered, smoky charred on the outside, bright hot pink within. It was cut in thick slices, plated on perfectly cooked asparagus spears, and topped with fresh, bitter arugula leaves. It was all fine until a dab of pink pickled onion drizzled a tart vinegary note onto the steak that was lost on me. The accompanying papas (fries) were well made and fine.
Olive oil cake ($9) was a dessert treat, moist and tender cake with a salted caramel drizzle, fresh berries and a scoop of pistachio ice cream; but a friend’s goat cheese flan ($9), another new menu item, was the dessert of the evening. Rich, creamy and pleasantly earthy, it was enhanced by a scoop of cajeta (goat’s milk dulce de leche) ice cream.
Our share of dinner for two, including a couple of mojitos and a cup of good, fresh coffee, came to $82.68, plus an $18 tip.
Robin Garr’s rating: 85 points
Noise level: Artesano is not a quiet environment, but conversation was possible in a somewhat less noisy side room. A crowd in the main room could amplify the noise. (Average sound level 77-84 dB.)
Accessibility: The modern shopping center space appears fully accessible to wheelchair users.