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1 West High Street
Somerville, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 526-0505

By The Artful Diner
December 17, 2007


You descend the stairs below proprietor John Proske's Il Pomodoro. At the bottom, you discover a cozy space replete with snugly spaced tables, banquette & throw pillows, several flat screen TVs (thankfully, without benefit of sound during our several visits), and a comfy L-shaped bar. Welcome to Mr. Proske's second venture, Tapastre, an establishment dedicated to "tapas," those tantalizing appetizers that originated in the bars and restaurants of Spain and have recently become wildly popular all over the world (including an unpretentious eatery in the heart of the Munich train station -- which was surprisingly good, by the way).

But not all tapas are created equal... and this particular genre has become so fanatically faddish as to give any red-blooded American foodie considerable pause. But rest easy, as Tapastre is infinitely more than just a cleverly conceived culinary turn-of-phrase.

Utilizing only pristinely fresh ingredients, executive chef Hany Elmokdem takes diners on an incomparable gastronomic tour of the Mediterranean rim -- Spain, France, Italy, the Middle East, Turkey & Greece, and North Africa -- and more than delivers the goods. His combinations of comestibles are flawless, his presentations beguilingly attractive. And this is surely no easy task; given the tapas format, diners inevitably order three or four or more small plates rather than just appetizer and entrée, necessitating a good deal more work on the part of the kitchen... but Mr. Elmokdem and his able staff certainly appear to be up to the challenge.

You inevitably begin with an amuse bouche -- the most memorable being a crystal clear, intensely flavorful duck consommé awash with julienne strips of duck breast and diced aromatic vegetables (carrot, onion & red pepper) -- and then move on to debate the delightful choices of the evening.

If you're just stopping in for an early drink at the bar before moving on -- and this is a great spot for a preprandial libation -- and just want something to curb the appetite, you might try the house-marinated mixed olives ($3.50) from the Italian section... or, better still, I highly recommend the completely irresistible Spanish lightly-breaded, deep-fried olives set on a bed of greens and sided by an addictive manchego fondue ($7.50).

On the other hand, should you be settling in for dinner in earnest, here are a few favorites gleaned from the various menu regions... In the Spanish section, the chicken & chorizo croquette with sun-dried tomato & olive tapenade ($6.50) is nicely seasoned and tantalizes the palate with just the right amount of pizzazz. Even better, in my opinion, is the lush and succulent kurobuta (Japanese black hog) pork sausage set on a bed of truffled white bean cassoulet and saffron sweet onions ($8.00).

If you're a Francophile, you'll find the mille feuille ($8.00), a take-off on the classic French dessert -- layers of grilled portobello, roasted red pepper, and fresh mozzarella tiered with pesto crustini -- an outstanding option... ditto the rich and meaty seared scallops companioned by bacon pesto and blue cheese cookies ($7.50).

From Italy, the grilled short rib ravioli ($7.00) and the stuffed zucchini ($6.50) are palpable hits. The former headlines al dente pasta pockets filled with tender beef, tomato, and toasted leeks enveloped in a pool of intensely flavorful pinot noir reduction; the latter is comprised of two diminutive cylinders of zucchini arranged vertically, stuffed with shredded spicy chicken & mushroom hash, and finished with melted Fontina cheese and drizzle of basil oil.

Hailing from the Middle East, Turkey & Greece, comes a triptych of delightful dips: artichoke, hummus, and baba ghanoush ($7.00), three diminutive ramekins adorned with chives, set on a banana leaf, and sided by crisp, garlicky pita chips. All three are incredibly smooth & creamy and addictively seasoned. Just enough to get the taste buds standing at attention for the good things to come... which should undoubtedly be the incomparable baby lamb chops ($11.00). Marinated with a balsamic vinegar reduction, garlic, olive oil, and sprinkling of thyme, they are then kissed by the grill and sent forth on a pillow of zabady, yogurt infused with shavings of cucumber and just the slightest hint of cumin oil. The meat is succulently sensual, the overall presentation a marvelous gastronomic gestalt. The hit of the evening...

As was the representative from North Africa, the extraordinarily sumptuous Algerian eggplant "jam" gloriously endowed with preserved lemon and touch of saffron ($5.00). The side of "rustic country-style bread" was something of a misnomer, as it turned out to be crisp, assertively seasoned flatbread... But that hardly mattered, as it proved to be the perfect traveling companion.

Desserts, which one critic described as "boring," were, in my opinion, comforting rather than convoluted; and, after a spirited gastronomic globe-trot, a most suitable homely conclusion to your evening at table: an excellent Grand Marnier crème brûlée ($6.00), extravagant gratin of white chocolate soup with fresh berries ($6.50), and fresh fruit with honey mascarpone whipped cream and mint ($6.00).

It should be noted that the menu also suggests wines and cocktails that are appropriate to each region of culinary endeavor. From Italy, the Santa Margherita Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.00 taste/$8.00 glass) is quite good... ditto the Banfi "Le Rime Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay ($3.00/$6.00). Two Greek wines are outstanding: a white Boutari Moschofilero ($3.00/$8.00); and a red Boutari Nemea ($3.00/$6.00). The Wild Pig Merlot from France ($3.00/$5.00) leaves a good deal to be desired; on the other hand, the Abbey de Saint Hilaire Meritage ($3.00/$8.00) exhibits a decided touch of elegance.

With its tempting tapas format, festive, casual atmosphere, and congenial service, Tapastre has become an immediate hit with its ever-growing clientele -- this writer included. Whether stopping by for a brief snack and libation at the bar, or settling in for lunch or dinner, this restaurant is an exciting dining experience.

Cuisine: Mediterranean Tapas
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Open Sundays in December only, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Reservations: Recommended on Thurs, Fri & Sat; required on Sundays in December
Parking: Small parking lot; adjacent municipal parking lot
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: No
Website: www.tapastre.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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