The lamb tagine at Joyia Tapas is a hearty stew for a winter evening, a golden broth perfumed with saffron and thick with hunks of lamb, apricot, orange rind and slivered almond. The lamb is very tender, and the sweetness of the fruits, mellowed by cooking, acts as a simple foil to the meat's strong flavor. On the side is a mound of herbed couscous. You can eat this by itself or stir it into the stew.
I hardly need to tell you this lamb tagine doesn't sound like tapas — and not simply because it isn't a Spanish bar snack. We've already lost the war to protect the original meaning of the term tapas, our battlements unable to withstand the hordes of trend-humping Visigoths. No, the issue here is size. In its portion and plating, the lamb tagine looks more like an entrée, and most diners could enjoy it as such without another thought. Order it as tapas, however, and even if you share it, you might find your appetite for more tapas diminished.
Joyia opened in late November at the westernmost edge of Forest Park Southeast's Grove neighborhood. This end of Manchester Avenue needs an anchor in order for the Grove to thrive, but over the past three years two restaurants have closed in the space Joyia now occupies: Mia Rosa (serving Italian "tapas") shuttered in the summer of 2010 after a two-year run; Crostini Restaurant & Lounge, a more conventional Italian restaurant, opened in September 2011 only to sputter out a mere six weeks later.
It's a big space to fill. You enter into the barroom, which by itself has enough room for the bar, a few high-top tables and a small lounge area. There are two spacious dining rooms, one with freestanding tables, the other with tables and curtained booths. The décor favors bright reds and oranges. Most evenings a belly dancer sashays from room to room.
Slideshow: Inside Joyia Tapas in the Grove
Owner Chuck Pener is no stranger to the small-plates concept, or to restaurants with belly dancers. He's a partner in western-reaches-of-University-City fixture Momos Ouzaria Taverna, which features Greek mezes. You'll find Greek dishes at Joyia, too — spanakopita, saganaki, grilled baby octopus in a lemon-oregano vinaigrette — but here Pener draws from a broader palette. The lamb tagine hails from Morocco. Breaded and deep-fried bocconcini (small balls of fresh mozzarella) drizzled with balsamic vinegar and served over a mash of roasted red pepper pull off the nifty trick of seeming Italian without being quite like any dish you've had at one of this city's many Italian joints.
The bocconcini follow the typical small-plate template, bite-sized and perfectly portioned for two to four diners to share. So do the chorizo rollos. An order brings four of these slender rollos, which look like (and sort of are) miniature burritos: sausage, potato, black beans, red onion and kasseri cheese wrapped in phyllo and then topped with a charred tomato-chile salsa. For all the components involved, what makes the dish a standout on Joyia's menu is the interplay between the sausage's bright spice and the deeper, sweeter heat of the salsa.
Yet the selection of small plates includes entrée-aping fare — the lamb tagine, and a pan-seared mahi mahi in an orange-white wine glaze that's served over jasmine rice and topped with shaved fennel, orange wedges and avocado slices. Even considered as an entrée, the latter dish had too many components and not enough focus; I had to dig through the fennel salad just to reach the fish. It was an excellent piece of fish, beautifully browned, the flesh very moist, but having already eaten one round of tapas, after a few bites of the mahi mahi and its accompaniments (the fennel and orange worked; the avocado didn't), two of us left the plate half-filled.
Confusingly, besides what it specifically terms "Small Plates," the menu includes other categories that one might consider small plates. A selection of "Spreads" brings appetizer-size portions of favorites like hummus (pungent here with roasted garlic and a heavy dose of smoked paprika) but also more intriguing dishes, like a rough, earthy purée of red lentils. Each comes with a half-dozen or so wedges of pita — hardly enough to scoop up all the spread. Additional pita costs $2 — a shame, especially when you throw in the fact that you're brought more than you need.
Other categories include an inexplicable selection of pastas (an elegant dish like scallops over risotto alongside something out of the school-lunch menu, "baked beef and cheese macaroni pasta"). There are gyros, which are a meal unto themselves and then some: a large pita piled high with meat (roasted lamb, in my case), iceberg lettuce, tomato, red onion, peperoncini, kalamata olives, feta cheese and then drowned in tzatziki. The lamb didn't have much punch to begin with, and the copious toppings (especially all that lettuce and tzatziki) buried it in bland.
My gyro was one of very few examples of poor execution at Joyia. More problematic is the concept — or, rather, the lack of follow-through on the concept promised by the restaurant's name. The scattershot arrangement of plates both small and large means that a diner could very well stumble into a procession of fun little bites — or she could order one thing and suddenly be done before her second cocktail has arrived.
We can argue until the end of time what tapas is and isn't, but epicureans and Visigoths alike can agree that, at the very least, it ought to be small.
Slideshow: Inside Joyia Tapas in the Grove