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De La Torre's
Paella for ten: A smiling server displays De la Torre's signature dish.
4 stars
92
De la Torre's
1606 Bardstown Road
(502) 456-4955

Web: http://www.delatorres.com/

Spanish style and genuine Castilian food, a short but interesting wine list and pleasant service ... who could ask for more? Not me! The fare at De la Torre's is authentic European Spanish, and it's as good as I've ever enjoyed outside of Spain.

One of the most frustrating things about the dining critic's trade is that I can't get back to my favorite local restaurants as often as I wish. Happily, an evening out with a group of "foodie" friends from the LouisvilleHotBytes.com Forum made a good excuse for a recent return visit to this perennial favorite; and I was delighted to find that it is just as good as ever.

From the white-and-blue-tiled facade to the lofty interior with its oak beams and pillars and pale ivory walls discreetly decorated with Castilian tiles to the cozy bar with its brass hood at the back of the room, everything about this warm and welcoming establishment speaks more of Spain than Bardstown Road. The service is welcoming and attentive without being overbearing, and the food, like the atmosphere, takes the happy diner on a culinary pilgrimage to Spain.

Appetizers are based on tapas, the enticing Spanish bar-food snacks that, according to legend, were originally designed as edible lids to be placed atop your Sherry glass to keep the fruit flies out. A dozen of these goodies, mostly featuring fresh seafood, range from $3.50 (for Tortilla Brava, a spicy, garlicky omelet bite) to $8.50 (for shrimp in olive oil in garlic, Serrano ham or Manchego cheese).

A short list of soups and salads are $3 (for a cup of soup) to $4.50 (for a large house salad or endive salad with Roquefort and pecans). About a dozen authentic Spanish entrees are all $17.95, although specials may be more and paella, the classic Spanish rice dish, is only available in portions for two diners or more.

The wine list, as noted, is all-Spanish (or practically so - you'll find a couple of non-vintage Ports from neighboring Portugal and a tasty Madeira from the Portuguese island in the Atlantic). It's not overly long, but well-chosen and fairly priced, with most selections available by the glass (from $4.50 to $6.50). Carafes of house wine or sangria are $14, and wines by the bottle range from $20 (for Marqué de Cáceres white Rioja) to $35 (for Marqué de Cáceres Rioja Reserva).

Rather than ordering individually, our group of 10 invited chef Miguel De la Torre to delight us with an assortment of tapas, and he more than met expectations, serving up plate after plate of wonderful starters: Calamares a la parrilla (grilled calamari) were as good as squid gets, chewy-tender bites, savory with oil and lemon, smoky and lightly tiger-striped with burnt-sienna grillmarks against their natural shiny white. Champiñones a la plancha was a pile of tender sauteed white mushrooms flecked with bits of ham and suffused with garlic. Mejillones picantes, fresh mussels in their shells, were tender and perfectly cooked, infused with a warm, spicy marinade. Gambas al ajillo were round dishes full of tiny, tender shrimp served sizzling hot in an intensely garlicky bath of olive oil. Jamón Serrano is the classic Spanish ham, chewy and salty-savory, sliced paper-thin. Although it bears a kinship to Italian prosciutto and Kentucky country ham, it's distinctly different from either, and a delight in its own right. Queso Manchego, another Spanish specialty, is an earthy, tangy and flavorful sheep's-milk cheese. All these were served with loaves of crusty, chewy Spanish baguette-style bread to be slathered, at your own risk, with fresh butter and addictive ali-oli, Spanish garlic mayonnaise.

These dishes went surprisingly well with a glass of Leacock's 5-year Dry Sercial Madeira, a nutty and powerful fortified wine that might not normally be thought of as a food wine. A more traditional table wine, Morgadio 2000 Rias Baixas Albariño, was a crisp and fruity white with a distinct peachy aroma.

It was difficult to pass by the many interesting Spanish entrees on the list, not least the cordero marinado (roast lamb), pollo asado (roast chicken), and trucha en escabeche (marinated trout), but the servers suggested a special paella featuring lobster tails ($25.95 each), and the restaurant's signature dish was too good to resist. Presented in a traditional paella pan (see photo above) then served on individual plates, it was an appetizing mix of seafood - shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, calamari rings - tossed in a rich, creamy rice gently flavored with tomatoes and saffron, with a few green beans and peas, garnished with lemon wedges and, atop each serving, a small, sweet and tender lobster tail in the shell. The flavor combination was almost impossible to resist, and it appeared that everyone in the group earned status in the Clean Plate Club. Despite the generous rations of delicate white seafood, the dish's robust and aromatic flavors made it work with a red wine, the elegant if rather oaky Marqués De Riscal 1997 Rioja ($33).

Desserts ($4.50) included a rich and decadent chocolate mousse cake with caramel sauce, grilled bananas with a remarkable strawberry sauce, and crema caramela, a Spanish take on creme brulee, which was flavorful but, in the evening's only minor lapse from perfection, seemed soupy under its glassy caramelized surface as if it had failed to set up properly.

The dinner was outstanding, with flawless service over a leisurely three-hour evening, and the share for two came to $114 plus a $23 tip. $$$$

(November 2001)