By Charles T. Clark, Special to The Day
Back in the 1980s, when he was in his 20s, restaurateur Ignacio Blanco opened Norwalk's acclaimed Spanish restaurant Meson Galicia. Meson Galicia thrived, moved, and became Meigas, which begat Pika Tapas and Mediterranean Grill, in New Haven and Wilton, respectively. And Pika Tapas begat Ibiza and then Ibiza Tapas. This is the rough genesis of perhaps Connecticut's most interesting culinary empire in recent memory.
Blanco has moved on to run the two Ibiza Tapas restaurants, in Hamden and in Northampton, Mass. Its progenitor, Ibiza in New Haven, continues to excel, and has earned the reputation - including nods from Wine Spectator and Esquire Magazine - as one of the finest Spanish restaurants in the country.
Ibiza is now managed by Blanco's compatriot, Juan Carlos Gonzalez, and his wife, Maria.
After two recent meals, I'm happy to report the dream of heavenly, traditional and innovative Spanish cooking continues to be held aloft by a commitment to excellence and the steady hand of executive chef Manuel Romero.
The menu is comprised of small plates ("tapas"), meats and fishes, and one or two vegetarian items. A selection of paellas is available Tuesday nights (don't miss them, they are superb) and there is, for the time being, a budget, prix-fixe menu of plates from Spain's Navarra region ($35, excluding wine, Monday through Thursday).
A meal at Ibiza is less a seated ceremony and more an episodic culinary adventure. We began our recent meals with a traditional, complimentary amuse bouche of two tiny and delicious croquettes of Calabres blue cheese paired with shots of intense tomato gazpacho - infused with the flavor of sunlight.
Finely shredded, buttery lamb arrived in crisply fried ravioli ("paquetitos") garnished with scallion and tomato confetti. Another version, one of the evening's specials, was stuffed with silken foie gras and minced scallions and perched on a bed of glistening baby carrots and pea pods.
Leading these knockout starters was Ibiza's grilled octopus salad, a bounty of caramelized but still tender slices of octopus on the simplest arrangement of lettuce, new potatoes, tomatoes, and sliced onion. Preceded by an appetizer, the salad would make an ample and unforgettable main course.
Monkfish is easy to ruin. Chef Romero grilled our two filets quickly and perched them in a clear and fragrant tomato broth with mussels, clams, and a jumbo poached shrimp. The shellfish was cooked in a snap. Memories of past Mediterranean seafood stews and bouillabaisses very nearly vanished.
Undistinguished, over-braised short ribs - chewy and dry - were topped with a ribbon of scarlet piquillo pepper and served in a delicious white wine and beef broth with potatoes and green peas.
The overcooked beef, and slices of respectable ciabatta that have replaced the previous excellent hard dinner rolls, were the only disappointments in many meals.
If you prefer grazing over tapas, Ibiza serves nearly 20 small plates at the bar. These include classics like codfish croquettes, shrimp in garlic, and Iberico ham. My advice is to simply let the staff bring you a selection, and stop when you've had your fill.
Desserts include a traditional flan but, from there on, have a personal stamp. The warm apple tart, which we ordered at the start of the meal, is my favorite. Here the apples merge with the featherweight crust into an ethereal experience, further enriched by a dollop of pastry cream and a spoonful of honey-vanilla ice cream. Chocolaholics will be drawn to the chocolate savarin, and white-chocolate mousse.
Upon dispatching the tart, we enjoyed a house specialty, warm chocolate croquettes served in porcelain spoons with a morsel of lemon gelatin topped with coconut foam. These are to be devoured in one bite, and the dialogue of flavors and textures captures perfectly the restaurant's playful approach to flavors.
As a final flourish, our server brought a complimentary plate of Lilliputian almond shortbread and chocolate milk shakes with coconut rum.
Ibiza was among the vanguard of restaurants that introduced new Spanish cooking to Americans. It has helped serve as catalyst for the proliferation of Spanish restaurants in Connecticut. After several recent meals, it seems evident that Ibiza's creative minds continue to evolve their interpretations of Iberian classics. At one point, bacon seemed an omnipresent flavor in the menu's savory courses. It is hardly perceptible today. Sweet and savory foams were chic in the 1990s. Now they are rarely encountered.
The superb food is matched by flawless service. Dinner for two, with two glasses of wine, comes to around $150, with tip. Not a decision to be taken lightly, but one that will be amply rewarded.