Real paella takes time. The rice has to simmer slowly in fish stock to achieve that creamy—but not mushy—consistency, and each piece of fresh seafood, from calamari, scallops, and mussels to shrimp, gets added at just the right time to ensure each is perfectly cooked. Finally, the whole dish needs to rest for five minutes off the flame, to craft an ideal texture and marriage of flavors. The process takes nearly 30 minutes, and it should not be rushed.
So it’s a good thing that T’ahpas 529 in Melrose is such a delightful place to pass some time. The restaurant offers live acoustic music several nights a week, delicious cocktails, and, of course, tapas. Way before small plates became a thing around here, the Spanish understood the joys of snacking on a whole bunch of tiny bites. So if you are in a rush order the paella when you order your cocktail. We’d recommend the Tamarind Margarita. Made with mezcal, tequila’s smoked cousin, it is the perfect thing to pair with some Pintxos—finger-food snacks that top the menu. Try the Datiles—dates stuffed with Marcona almonds, wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, and broiled, served with a Spanish blue cheese dipping sauces. They are every bit as delectable as they sound—the sweetness of the date is elevated by the salty-smoky bacon and enriched by the nut center. The only problem is, there are only three to an order, so if you are a party of two, there may be a fight for the last one. Or you can just order a second round.
But there are loads more tasty bites to choose from on the totally sharable menu. Chef Lorenzo Tenreiro, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Emily, understands when to innovate and when to stick with tradition. The Datiles are his own invention, but the Pan Con Tomate is a simple and delicious rendition of the classic dish of grilled bread, smeared with crushed fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and Maldon sea salt, with optional anchovies—yes, please.
Likewise, the ceviche, found in the Tapas Frias (cold small plates) section, draws heavily on tradition, as well as the chef’s Venezuelan roots. The classic mix of fresh fish (chosen daily), cilantro, lime juice, mixed peppers, and red onion, is topped with crispy chulpe (a variety of corn popular in South America) and plantain chips for scooping, just as it is served in the country where Tenreiro grew up.
If you’ve never tried Jamon Iberico Fermin, this is the perfect place to do it. The dry-cured ham is from heirloom black-footed pigs who feast on acorns in the forest in Spain. It is intensely flavorful and slightly nutty; skip the bread and just lay a piece on your tongue to savor it.
Moving on to Tapas Calientes (hot small plates), the crispy fried Coliflor, served with a house-made roasted garlic aioli, is tasty—and perhaps best accompanied by a glass from the restaurant’s impressive sherries. Most Americans think of sherry as a sweet dessert wine, but it actually has a broad array of expressions, including minerally bone dry Fino style. Staff are happy to guide you on a sherry exploration or offer a selection from their carefully chosen, mostly Spanish wine list.
The Pulpo a la Parilla is a nice bridge to the main course. This grilled octopus served on a bed of chorizo, offers some tongue-tingling heat. Or if you’re feeling more like meat, check out the Costillas—meltingly tender short ribs, atop a bed of beautifully buttery polenta—which has become a crowd favorite in the two years since the restaurant opened.
Right about now, your Paella Ciega should be ready. It is deliciously fragrant, made with Bomba rice imported from Spain, fresh New England seafood, and saffron; squeeze the lime over it and enjoy. Or, if you’re more adventurous, order the Arroz Negro. Deep, rich, and a tad bit spooky (perfect for October), this seafood risotto is colored black as night using squid ink, and dotted with garlic aioli to mix in.
To finish, try the rich, fluffy Marquesa de Chocolate—it is a staple of every Venezuelan household, but unique around here. Tenreiro’s recipe comes from his Aunt Marianela and combines layers of mousse, made with high-quality Venezuelan chocolate and a hint of coffee, with layers of galletas Maria—slightly sweet cookies ubiquitous in South America. Or for something bright and light, try the Pie de Limon—Tenreiro’s mother’s signature recipe for key lime pie, made with a galleta Maria crust. Because there’s always room for dessert.
contact 529 Franklin St., Melrose, 781-590-4916, tahpas529.com