Good things come in threes
Music, books, tapas at quirky Tres Gatos
The restaurant business is one of calculation. If a French bistro becomes the new hot spot, an army of clones with black-and-white tiles, marble bars, and seafood platters is sure to materialize. Local, seasonal cooking is all the rage? A million menus get on that wave and ride. Survival demands popularity. There is safety in the tested concept.
Then there are the places that exist solely because someone has a vision. It makes sense to them. They decide to make it happen.
It doesn’t always make sense to others, unfortunately — say, raw food in a neighborhood known for pasta and pizza, a high-end clothing boutique/video game lounge/sustainably sourced restaurant, an awkwardly named spot serving pastries injected with ice cream.
But when the unique idea has mass appeal, it’s magic. There’s a place like no other. It is quirky, carried out with passion. These are what we call labors of love, and we love them back. A restaurant in a former pasta factory in Somerville, started by academics without restaurant experience. A crackerjack spot in an East Boston shipyard where people come in strangers and leave friends (may Scup’s rise again). A hot dog cart in an industrial lot where the humble frank is lavished with the attention generally only given products deemed artisanal.
Or a tapas bar/record and book shop. Tres Gatos opened in February in Jamaica Plain, a recasting of the store Rhythm & Muse. Brick-and-mortar music-and-lit isn’t exactly a growth sector these days. Proprietors David Doyle and wife Maricely Perez-Alers decided that it made perfect sense to start offering their wares alongside Spanish small plates. “Eating tapas is about sampling, sharing, and connecting, and that approach fits perfectly with R&M’s role as a neighborhood indie book and music store,’’ says Tres Gatos’ website.
They were totally right.
Tres Gatos is an intimate space, painted a cozy dark brown, anchored by a bar that offers the best seats in the house. There are a few small tables, plus a larger one in a bright orange side room for communal dining. For summer, a patio is in the works. But eating at the bar feels right. It puts you shoulder to shoulder with your compatriots, and it gives you direct access to the folks behind the bar, whose excitement for the regional bottles of Spain is contagious. (Keith Harmon is the wine director.) Ask them what to drink and you may wind up with a bottle that hasn’t made it to the list yet. It just came in, and they’re so excited about it, they want you to try it right now.
The food is respectful to Spain without being slavish. It’s prepared with real chops — in the kitchen are executive chef Marcos Sanchez (Dante) and sous chef Lydia Reichert (Craigie on Main).
The menu is compact, ranging from light snacks to more-filling small plates. Boquerones — mild white anchovies marinated in vinegar — pair nicely with a dish of pickled carrots and turnips. Mixed olives and Marcona almonds with smoked sea salt also work to pad out your glass of sherry. Tres Gatos offers a half-dozen or so kinds of this misunderstood fortified wine. It’s time to stop associating sherry — delicious, diverse — with that dusty bottle in the back of your grandmother’s cabinet. Here is your chance. (That goes for Tres Gatos’ servers, too. Knowledgeable about the wine list, they are less well versed in sherry.)
Cured meats and cheeses can be ordered individually or as a platter, with the kitchen selecting three of each. You’ll find chorizo and house-made duck terrine, tetilla, and Valdeon. The salty lomo Serrano is particularly good, cured pork loin flavored with garlic and pimenton, with a texture that falls midway between jerky and prosciutto.
A simple salad of escarole and frisee with Cara Cara and blood oranges in a creamy vinaigrette is crisp, lightly bitter, and refreshing. Tortilla espanola is excellent, a tall triangle of potato and egg served with pimenton aioli. Salt cod brandade isn’t as stiff as many versions, with the consistency of hummus; it’s served with grilled bread for dipping. There are little lamb meatballs touched with warm Moroccan spices and miniature empanadas, the crisp, flaky pastry filled with rich braised pork. Confit chicken leg is a stellar dish, with tender, flavorful meat and super-crisp skin, accented with braised escarole and raisins soaked in Madeira.
Missteps are minor. Beautiful prawns with garlic and pine nut picada could use more salt. Lentil salad is bland, a disappointment for something so easily jazzed up. Sangria one night is bitter, as though citrus rinds have soaked too long in the liquid. Dessert isn’t a strength. Served with spiced hot chocolate, churros come undercooked one night; the next visit they’re properly golden, but overly salty. The concept of setting off sweetness with sodium in desserts can be taken too far. More-creative fare — a pear tart, orange flower rice pudding — doesn’t quite achieve the sureness of the savory dishes.
Because Tres Gatos is tiny, the prices reasonable, and the food delicious, it is often crowded. Waiting for a seat gives you time to get reacquainted with the joys of browsing through records and books, if you’ve gotten out of the habit. Here, doing so is even better than you remember, because the cheerful servers will bring a bottle and wineglasses to the store area, stocked by Phil Wilcox, formerly of Trident Booksellers & Cafe. Cheers to offline shopping, tactile, serendipitous, and — now — thirst-quenching, too.
Jamaica Plain’s transition continues. It still has room for artists and alternative thinkers, but it grows ever more established (and expensive).
Truly, there are too many spots like this in the Boston area to count. It’s what makes this a great place to eat. We don’t have the breadth or big names a larger city can offer. But we support character, so we have it in abundance.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.