Spanish food, one of the world’s great cuisines, has been largely absent from the area. Calling a restaurant a tapas place does not automatically make it so, especially when the dishes speak in other accents.
In February, Aro Bar de Tapas opened in a Sheridan Drive plaza, offering a principled emulation of a northern Spanish restaurant. Its creators imported more than wine, cheese and fine ham from the source. Their research hauls included dish inspirations from across the nation, which can be used to harness the produce of this region, and details down to the type of nails used in the bar.
The result is a place that doesn’t quite transport you to Spain, but offers enough glimpses of wonder to leave you idly pricing airfare afterward.
A skilled husband-and-wife team is in the kitchen, powering their own place after fine-dining careers elsewhere. Scott Kollig worked for famed Spanish chef Jose Andres, and Monica Kollig brought her pastry skills to Baltimore’s Cinghiale.
With another partner, former tech journalist and food blogger Jeremy Horwitz, they offer a carefully curated menu of Spanish classics and the Kolligs’ recast versions of nominally Spanish cuisine.
Tapas, sometimes reductively described as small plates, do not exist as food alone. Typically built from simple, fresh or preserved ingredients, they exist as robust partners for drinks. They are the classy Spanish cousin to free chips and nacho cheese at happy hour.
For drinks, Aro has a custom cocktail lineup, and wine list replete with Spanish choices, but its bar specialty is Spanish-style gin and tonics. These use premium tonic and a vast array of botanical and spice accents to convince drinkers to look beyond the old Tanqueray with a twist.
Chunks of dry ice that gave drinks theatrical fog at its February opening are gone. The top-of-the-line Ultimo gin and tonic ($15) still comprises Fever Tree tonic, Hendricks gin, cucumber peel and rose petal, and it is still a delicious thrill sans Hollywood effects.
The food had bigger thrills to offer, beginning with Iberico de Bellota ($18). “The world’s best ham,” the menu calls it, and I couldn’t disagree after letting some paper-thin shavings melt on my tongue.
Bellota means acorns, a mainstay of these hogs’ diet, a flavor attenuated by three years of curing. Intensely nutty, with a remarkable sweet savoriness, it was a memorable meaty splurge.
It was a masterpiece of pig.
Not everyone will dine on swine. Fine, because here comes the patatas bravas ($8).
Fingerling potatoes are sliced lengthwise, fried and dressed with garlicky aioli, tomato-chile sauce and smoked pimenton, or paprika. I kept eating the golden-brown spuds, dragged through their sauces, long after I should have moved on.
Eye-opening vegetables continued with roasted baby carrots in harissa ($7), soft and sweet in a pool of North African spices and reduced carrot broth. It seemed less aggressively flavored than the February version, but still adeptly turned a humble vegetable into high pleasure, root candy.
The cauliflower ($8) was outstanding, though not vegetarian. A small head was roasted whole until bronzed on the outside and spoon-soft inside, adorned with flakes of salty browned chicken skin and a scattering of fresh microgreen herbs. It looked like too much when our server put it down, then it wasn’t enough. “Whoever thought cauliflower could be exciting?” Cat said.
Croquettes with ham ($12) had proper crusts but liquid centers, which was by design, but left me wanting.
Queso a la parilla ($12) was a sandwich of crusty baguette, four Spanish cheeses and local honey, a sticky-fingered delight for one, or for four people to have a bite or two as they glower at the person who got the big piece.
Squid ($11), cut in big rings, was fried to a soft coat, subdued until dragged through smoky aioli. Octopus ($12) was more engaging, chewy baby cephalopods that had been seasoned, seared and tossed with melted bone marrow and lemon juice, then offered with greens, and a piquillo pepper stuffed with lemon crème fraiche.
Some of Aro’s recast classics left me flat. Ensalata Rusa ($14) is classic Spanish potato salad, often with tuna, which became sliced seared tuna arranged with chunks of celery, carrots and potatoes and dabs of pea puree and aioli. It was pretty, but too deconstructed for efficient flavor mingling.
Arroz con pollo ($17) is usually chicken cooked in rice, so the rice absorbs its essence. Aro’s comes as seared confit chicken flanked by crispy black rice orbs, under a wreath of peashoots. Its beauty – and delicious chicken – didn’t make up for losing its comfort food essence.
But the satisfactions vastly outnumbered disappointments. The beef pintxo skewer ($12), merguez lamb sausages with an egg ($13), and Spanish fried chicken, two confited drumsticks fried and served with aioli ($10) were fleshy, not flashy, satisfactions.
Service was attentive and adept, except for empty glasses that lingered late in the meal. Ordering a bunch of things, then letting the kitchen sort it out, worked as a strategy.
Desserts ($10) are a strong suit at Aro, making it my first answer for Amherstians looking for a dessert place that goes beyond ice cream parlors. Their finesse and flavors were remarkable.
Take the ojo del buffalo. It looks like a magnetic chocolate egg run blasted with confectionery shrapnel and splattered with gold, dessert by Miro. Inside is brownie and caramel milk chocolate mousse, proving it’s not just a pretty face.
Vanilla flan, presented on a field of crème anglaise and flowers, was so lovely it was almost a shame to eat it, then its flavor made it all right. Boca negra was blackout cake, ganache, candied hazelnuts, sour cherry gel, cherries and crème fraiche.
Lemon meringue crema, served under a fuzzy cloud of shredded phyllo, scored with citric pudding and fresh strawberries; basil streusel was lost in the commotion. Feather-light churros come with salted caramel and chocolate sauces, but some were wilted.
Exploring what Aro has brought to the table will reward even mildly adventurous diners. Those first smitten with Spanish cuisine in some tiny Barcelona bar will never find a worthy replacement for that lost love, but in Aro they may yet see reflections of an old flame.
Aro Bar de Tapas - 8 plates (out of 10)
Spanish flavors, fine cooking, desserts may refashion your vacation plans.
WHERE: 5415 Sheridan Drive (near Evans), Amherst (631-1000)
HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Snacks, $5-$12; tapas, $6-$19, desserts, $3-$10.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.