I was kicking around in foreign territory down Santa Monica way for the afternoon, thinking I was resigned to a poor lunch at some ho-hum Third Street Promenade eatery - thank God at least Monsieur Marcel had opened up - when I practically tripped over Bar Pintxo. I'm never in Santa Monica, so I really didn't expect ever to go to Bar Pintxo. My trip down here was just a spur-of-the-moment thing. Well, I knew where I was having lunch today.
There was only server, and she told me I could sit wherever I liked. No one was sitting at the bar; only some tables were taken, so I chose the bar. I could appreciate that the waitress wanted to be attentive to the customers, but when my wait for service started pushing the ten minute mark as she remained with the same one table, I began to get a little annoyed. One couple had come in shortly after I sat, examined the tapas in the bar's display and the chalkboard wines, but, having not been met by a server after looking around and craning their necks for a server, they left.
I finally got some help from the server when she was free. I know absolutely nothing about Spanish wines, and the wine list at Bar Pintxo does little more than separate the offerings into blanco and tinto. Another annoyance, especially as the server's recommendations never fell on the wines that were five, six, or seven dollars a glass; all the best wines were, I noticed, the ones that were nine or ten dollars a glass. (I noticed when the price increases began in earnest at Pizzeria Mozza all the best quartinos were suddenly the most expensive ones there, too.) The white wine I got - don't ask me what it was; the name had an "x" in it - was just okay for nine bucks. In my opinion, when it comes to wine, Spain is no France or Italy.
The tapas were hit and miss. The white asparagus with romesco sauce was a big miss. The white asparagus had an unpleasant waxy-stringy texture (I don't know if this is the fault of the restaurant or of white asparagus as a vegetable) and the bread tasted of char. The prawns in garlic were cooked well, nicely garlicky and tender, but they were nothing unique other than they came with the face still on. The dates stuffed with Cabrales and rolled in bacon - a Spanish version of Devils on Horseback, perhaps - were really fantastic. I could have had another order of these, frankly. These are one of the real stars at Bar Pintxo. The same can be said for the croquetes, which are very different from the version served at Cobras & Matadors. The Bar Pintxo version has a completely creamy interior, which I almost thought might have been a mistake in cooking until I saw the order for the diner a few stools down had the same interior texture. The croquetes are chicken (liquid chicken?) with big chunks of jamón served with a dollop of garlic-spiked mayonnaise. Excellent, excellent stuff.
I should have stopped there, but knowing it would be a long time until I get back to Santa Monica - and, when I do come back, I'll be at Anisette a few blocks away - I ordered a sangria and more tapas. The sangria has nothing on Border Grill's superlative version. The jamón with fried leeks and tomato was too busy. The chopped tomato and onion relish or salsa or whatever clobbered the taste of the ham. (At least the bread wasn't burnt this time.) But the sopa de ajo was the real disaster. The waitress warned me that some customers dislike it because it is very heavy on garlic and paprika. Garlic and paprika I can take, so I said that would be fine. In the more than fifteen minutes I had to wait for it, I nearly canceled the soup. I had begun to think the three cooks, who were right in front of me, forgot the order. But then, right when I was about to cancel it, the bowl appeared. Garlic and paprika I can handle. What I got was something that was like a ham-and-egg scramble in red broth. Take fluffy scrambled eggs with fatty cured pork. Pour soup over it. Yuck. I could see pieces of boiled pork skin in the soup; it was not pleasant. The last two items meant my meal ended on a low note.
The service, while slow and scattered, was completely pleasant and obliging. There was just one server for the whole bar, and since she was trying to give personalized service, sometimes things got held up. That's different than chatting with the other servers or talking on the phone and definitely fine with me. As for the notorious stools, no, they aren't great, but I didn't develop sciatica over my meal. I didn't even think, Wow, I'm uncomfortable. The only time I actually thought about the stools was when I thought to myself that I should judge the comfort level of the stools. What annoyed me more was the relative impenetrability of the menu. Bar Pintxo could be a great place for quick in-and-out dining - if one did not need to have the server translate half the menu and explain a good chunk of the wine list as I had to. When the bar is packed at night, that could be a real problem. Perhaps a description of the untranslated dishes could be helpful for those of us who opted for French class in high school. The tapas at Bar Pintxo seem more authentic than at Cobras & Matadors, which is now more of a small plates restaurant - and, after my last meal at Cobras in March, seems to have declining quality. (Comparing Bar Pintxo to Cobras & Matadors may not be comparing apples to oranges, but it definitely feels like at least comparing apples to pears to me.) But authenticity may not be everyone's cup of tea: Rounds of bread topped with mayonnaise-y crab salad seems like something I would see at a church social for blue hairs, not a trendy Spanish eatery. Some of the items, frankly, just didn't seem appetizing, and I dodged a few bullets by being able to match the dishes to what was laid out in the sushi bar-style glass cases in front of me. My advice: I think the best seats at Bar Pintxo might be at the bar to see the dishes in the case and at the stoves and choose by sight.
I am glad I stumbled into Bar Pintxo. It's the kind of place I want just to stumble into, frankly. But I wouldn't travel across the city for another visit. If I was in the neighborhood for some other reason, and Anisette was full, and Robata Bar was closed or I heard it was awful, and it wasn't the affordable night for JiRaffe, and I didn't want to leave to eat somewhere else, and I was craving Spanish food for some reason... I might stumble into Bar Pintxo again. But that's a big if.