Last week, a woman at work who enjoys local food, but not necessarily keeping up with my blog, was quizzing me in the ladies room about my favorite new restaurants, and I told her about Zona and Co Grille, and that I was trying a new tapas place in Endicott that very night. As the color drained from her face and she stammered before me, I realized that she had misheard me, or at least misunderstood the term, “tapas,” thinking instead I was enthusiastically announcing my intention to visit a strip club for dinner in the women’s lavatory. And that is not the first time I’ve had someone misinterpret my tapas fervor.
So, before I launch into this week’s review of Feliz Wine and Tapas Bar, in Endicott, let me educate you on Spain’s small plates, and how they differ from dancers of the exotic variety. Tapas, which literally translates to, “cover,” is a Spanish culinary tradition of sharing small plates of appetizer-like foods in a tavern while drinking, with the dual purposes of enhancing conversation and making bar patrons thirstier. This happy hour mentality has traveled to America in some literal interpretations, like Beso in Staten Island and the divine Jaleo, in Washington, DC, as well as Americanized small plates menus emphasizing the practice, though not the cuisine. The rhyming of the word to “topless,” is coincidental, and in no way should sully your thoughts about small plates of bacon-wrapped figs, garlicky shrimp, or flatbread pizzas. You can keep your shirt on while eating them, it’s OK.
Feliz is in a rough part of town, though BAE Systems’ move to downtown Endicott has certainly breathed new life into the greater Washington Avenue area. Just be sure to lock your car. Once you step inside, though, you’re immediately delivered to an attractive, contemporary respite from the Southern Tier. The color palette is dominated by purple, and the wall-mounted fountains and candles sprinkled throughout the space help to alleviate the grit of Endicott’s still-struggling economy. The owner enthusiastically informed us of all the live music plans they’re making, but I really enjoyed how quiet it was inside, and I hope the jazz nights and piano bar chicanery don’t impede on the serenity this space provides.
The owners of Feliz are first-time restaurateurs, but they’ve made two smart moves right off the bat:
1. Hiring a chef who has a world-cuisine point-of-view and who has lots of experience
2. Keeping the menu simple and short to start, with vibrant and adventuresome specials to tempt and test their clientele
First off, you should order the vegetable and coconut curry rice dish, no matter what. I don’t care if you don’t like vegetables, or if you don’t like curry. Order it anyway. Big Hungry Lisa didn’t think she liked curry, and this is now her favorite dish off Feliz’s menu. The small bowl of Indian comfort food is warming and earthy, broccoli, cauliflower and basmati drenched in a tandoori curry sauce rich with cream. The veggies are crisp-tender perfection, the rice is fluffy, and the mixture of light tomato flavor, not-sweet but detectable coconut, cream, and spices in the mild sauce is luscious. Lisa has vowed to order this every time she eats at Feliz, and I don’t blame her a bit. I could tuck into a bowl right this very second and be a happy camper, indeed.
If you’re looking for a lighter starter, ask your waitress if they’re running the butternut squash and ricotta salad on the night you visit. This oddly conceived dish totally works, with mixed greens, a sweet dressing, crunchy and softer vegetables, and creamy ricotta all working in harmony on the plate. It’s light, but still satisfying, and the dollops of ricotta cheese under the lettuce provide a velvety, bland foil for the sweet dressing and bitter greens.
You know I had to order the red velvet waffles with fried chicken wings. Come on, I’m only human! Oddly, though I liked the dish, it wasn’t my favorite of the evening. The waffle hit most of the right notes, with that dry cocoa flavor and overall sweetness coming through. But the chicken wasn’t strong enough, for me, to stand up against the monster flavor of the waffle. It needed a touch of cayenne or some other kicker in its seasoning, and for me, the wings should have been meatier. I understand that serving the wings, rather than breasts or thighs, with this dish makes it easier to keep the price to a tapas-friendly range, but they need to be larger wings to make this dish work.
Lisa ordered the steak with blue cheese polenta, sautéed mushrooms and pearl onions, which was fantastic. The bite-sized portions of sirloin were cooked perfectly, and the blue cheese in the firm but not dry polenta was high quality. That said, the entire dish needed to be hotter, temperature-wise. The polenta was lukewarm at best when this dish hit our table, and the experience suffered for it. That said, a bite of the mushroom, onion and polenta all-together was crazy good, with the shrooms sautéed enough to give off a caramelized sweetness, and the onions just slightly less sweet, cleaner, and exquisite with that blue cheese.
Our final dish was the lamb pops – baby lamb chops with the bones frenched so that each had a tiny handle. We both loved the tender, mild, meaty lamb, but again, I wished the cauliflower puree under them had been even a little warm. It was just room temperature, and cost the entire dish a lot of the sweet/bitter flavor it was just nearly starting to deliver. The tiny, punchy green bean salad served alongside had the same sweet dressing as the squash salad we started with, and was a good source of crunch and freshness with the savory lamb.
Feliz Wine and Tapas Bar is serving some very edgy, upscale, promising food for this part of town, and I have high hopes for her chef and the new space. I think a permanent salad item on the menu is a must, as is a soup, and more shellfish would do well, since it fits so well into the tapas framework. They told us they’re adding desserts soon, so stayed tuned for those. And I’m dying to try the pork dumplings. We awarded Feliz an eight on the BHS scale, knowing full well that hotter food and an opportunity to taste more of the kitchen’s wonders could move this needle to the right. Please check out this new, locally-owned spot on Monroe St. in Endicott, and let us know what you think. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!