Don Quixote’s ideal is rustic perfection, and the result is not far off
Even the French admit it — or at least some of them do (grudgingly, bien sûr): Spain is the new center of the culinary world. Barcelona is the new Paris. Airy foams are the new cream-based sauces. And agar-agar confabulations have replaced gelées and aspics. At least for now.
|Clockwise from front: Paella lunch platter; homemade flan; sangria; cocido madrileño, croquetas de pollo, jamón a bacalao; and tapa mixta.|
But just as most artists must learn to draw before they can successfully rebel against pencil and paper, it’s good to remember that a cuisine springs from cultural and geographic roots, not a chemistry lab. Just in time, Don Quixote has arrived at an unusually international shopping center near the Medical Center to joust with the windmills of the new god of gastronomy — Ferran Adriá — and his Iberian acolytes. The owners of this family-run and frankly informal café (he’s in the kitchen, she’s up front) are from Madrid by way of Florida, and they are putting on no foamy airs whatsoever about the homemade quality of their food. It’s real, rustic, and robust. And it may even make you appreciate a guileless glass of (free, for now) sangria anew. When was the last time you willingly drank sangria?
Quixote’s sangria is fresh, fruity, and goes down easy — very easy, if one companion’s appreciation is to be taken as a gauge. But it’s also perfect with time-tested tapas such as the classic tortilla española. This sturdy, omelette-like dish with egg and potato can be much fancier (my own rendition usually includes roasted red peppers, and marinated artichoke hearts are not shabby, for example), but the Don’s is the real deal — deeply flavorful and disarmingly light. I paired mine with a lusty lentil soup, swimming with multiple meats and vegetables, and went away, if not fat, at least happy.
Weekend evenings at Don Quixote feature flamenco performances, and an Austin-based Spanish couple’s appearance on the 22nd of July should not be missed, according to aficionados. But even without the clack of castanets and the rhythmic drumming of feet on a makeshift stage, dinner at the restaurant has a certain anywhere-but-here quality, abetted by tapas such as the champiñones al ajillo and the calamares a la Sevillana. Annoyingly, tapas can be as pricey as entrées — but, in their defense, the generous serving of mushrooms was redolent of garlic, and the squid, though not much different than that served at many places around town, was crisply fried (it worked best with just a squeeze of lemon). But my personal favorite was the croquetas de jamón (the dried cod version having been depleted at lunch). These are classic Spain: They’re presented wham-bam in a bowl with no squiggled sauce, and, with their crisp, crumbed exterior and creamy, ham-flecked interior, they’re the essence of café cooking. Olives, imported chorizo, serrano ham, Spanish cheeses, and shrimp in garlic sauce are among the other tapas to be tried. Don Quixote having no wine and/or beer license yet (hence the free sangria), bring your own albariño and/or Rioja — and your own glasses too, if you’re leery of tasting from plastic tumblers.
Don Quixote Restaurant & Grill
1721 Babcock Rd.
The cocido Madrileño, listed as an entrée, is a Spanish stew chock-full of chickpeas, with ham, beef, pork, morcilla (blood sausage with spice-box flavors), chorizo (the sliceable, Spanish kind), and carrots, and though I yearned to come back the day after it was made, when the flavors would have had time to meld, I was still more than satisfied, and the bowl was wiped clean.
A single order of the featured paella didn’t quite get downed; it would have served several. And in its kitchen-sink approach (everything but sausage, and that includes chicken and several kinds of seafood), it would be considered totally tourist by paella purists, but we weren’t complaining — especially about the beautifully discrete rice with subtle saffron flavor.
One of my preferred companion palates, who did advance espionage work, claims that the fabada Asturiana is fab; it’s composed of white beans, chorizo, and more morcilla. And I expect to return for the unassuming albondigas, meatballs and vegetables in a tomato sauce. I won’t necessarily be looking forward to the fresh but over-steamed and under-seasoned vegetables that accompany entrées, nor will I dream about the ensaladilla rusa, a dependable Sancho Panza-like but not especially inspiring potato salad with peas and carrots.
But I might spend some time thinking about dessertish-sounding Dulcinella, the Don’s unattainable object of desire. The grainy but nevertheless rewarding (and off-the-menu) crema Catalana, a rendition of crème brûlée with an appropriately crackling sugar cap, made future quests for Don Quixote’s signature flan and the popular arroz con leche seem dreams altogether desirable — and not the least bit impossible.