Dining » Cafe

Tapas 'n' Things

Aaron Whalen brings Spanish flair (and delicious food) to the Lou


According to a friend of mine, you need to rebel against the notion of tapas when dining at Bastante, the fine new Mediterranean restaurant opened by chef Aaron Whalen. My pal made that pronouncement just after savoring a mouthful of beef tenderloin liberally bathed with a brandied beef reduction sauce, which sat atop a mound of basil "crushed" potatoes. Aside from the intrinsic radical tinge to his comment -- he is a socialist, after all -- I think my friend is mostly right. What he meant was that this delicious $16 skewer of beef was as big as any entrée served at other restaurants. That reality challenged his concept of tapas, sending him into a Hegelian dialectic. We sipped more wine, laughed and went back to eating.

And that, my friends, is the true notion of tapas -- and the art of tapeo: sharpening the appetite with myriad tidbits and drinks with friends, inducing witty banter on remote topics. The perfect sybaritic marriage of food, drink and conviviality that pleases all five senses. (It should be noted, however, that the true philosophy of tapeo entails the peripatetic art of mingling with friends in multiple locations. This being the Midwest, the distance between tapas bars precludes any notion of walking.)

Bastante (Spanish for "enough") calls my friend's beef dish, and nine others, "medium plates," which in my book spells "Americanized tapas" -- bigger servings for those not disposed to sharing. Combine one with a salad or soup and it's a good-sized meal for one. Entrées, dubbed "large plates," are limited to two or three nightly off-the-menu specials. If you want to experience tapas in its nearly true form -- bite-size morsels occupying minimal surface area -- Bastante accommodates with eleven "small plates." Now, this is what my friend had in mind.

Then again, Whalen, who made a name for himself across the river with Whalen's on the Wharf in Grafton and later with Aaron's in Alton, isn't afraid to challenge our notion of "small plate" tapas. He's a big guy who likes big flavors: six pancetta-wrapped dates, smoky and concentrated with sweetness, served with a sweet red-pepper dipping sauce ($6); chilled, crisp asparagus bites, punctuated with crabmeat and an orange-and-mustard vinaigrette and crowned with walnuts and a single grilled prawn ($9); a "fun" mushroom medley of fresh oyster, portobello and cremini mushrooms and a few reconstituted morels, flambéed with sherry ($4). If flash-fried spinach is being offered, order it and smile ($5). Translucent and luscious, it is one of life's most simple guilty pleasures.

Before Bastante, the building was home to Skeeter's Eatery, a neighborhood bar and grill. Manager Jesse Jones says the area -- the section of Watson Road between Hampton and Chippewa -- was ripe for another restaurant, given the proximity of Trattoria Marcella to the south and the Hill to the northeast. Whalen has kept the existing corrugated metal wainscoting throughout the space but has painted the rough one-by-three-inch wood trim a burnt red and accented the walls with muted orange. The entry, near the hostess stand, has been converted into a cozy little dining area with five tables and small "bar" where you can sit and watch Whalen and his staff at work in the kitchen. In the main dining room, fabric panels replace the old drop ceiling tiles, making for a comfortably quiet room, even with the presence of a Spanish guitarist on weekends. To the side is an equally comfortable bar area, accented with bamboo blinds.

The food writer Alicia Rios once explained that "unlike the more well-known concept of food supplemented by good wine, in the case of the art of tapeo, it is not the wine which lubricates the ingestion of good food...it is the food which really acts as an accompaniment to the series of sips of good wine." Say, after a few small plates and a few glasses of Dominio de Eguren Protocolo Blanco ($18 a bottle). At this point, the medium plates seem quite attractive. Characteristic of the spicy meat tapas of the Castilian region, the mixed plate of house-made sausages includes thick slices of juicy grilled chorizo. But true to Whalen's flair for pairing Spanish and Italian flavors, slices of pan-seared salsiccia and grilled lamb accompany the chorizo, along with sun-dried tomatoes and a salad of new potatoes with an herb-mustard dressing ($9).

Things do sometimes get a bit confusing. Other "medium plates" include a roasted duck leg with fried sweet potatoes and a lamb shoulder steak with new potatoes. This must be Whalen's "New World American" influence (as it states right there on the front of the menu). Allusions to jet lag aside, this culinary voyage does work, once you rebel against your notion that Bastante is strictly Mediterranean. The duck, served with a sauce of dried cherries and mushrooms, settles into a rich, satisfying mélange, pairing well with the accompanying slices of fried sweet potato. The lamb -- rubbed with rosemary, marinated and then grilled -- comes with lamb sausages and herbed new potatoes. Topped with a jus made from shallots and sun-dried tomatoes, the dish would be right at home during the fall (which, in fact, it felt like near the air-conditioning vents).

Whalen's deft treatment of seafood captures the Spanish influence while again creatively combining flavors. Large, seared scallops might be found in a northern coastal area such as Galicia, but topping the scallops with a creamy essence of shellfish, tarragon, asparagus tips and sliced grape tomatoes is a nouveau twist. A generous fillet of thick, firm grouper is grilled and topped with Spanish olives. Chunks of tomato-basil bread stuffing soak up the lemon butter, while flash-fried spinach provides color and crunch. Both of the above are available among the medium plates. Misto ($17), a large-plate special, combines the delicate flavors of shrimp, scallops, lobster, calamari and mussels, simmered in a subtle broth of garlic and white wine.

Other large plates allow Whalen even more elbow room. His take on osso buco ($20) employs a pork shank rather than veal. It was an eye-opener when the dish arrived at the table with one large and one smaller bone standing straight up. Surrounded by a veal demi-glace, the flavorful meat slid off the bone, thanks to a slow, tenderizing braise. Adding a chutney of cubed Fuji apples again brought an autumnal feel. If it's available, order the sweet melon-mango gazpacho for a burst of fresh summer fruit.

Bastante's wine list shows creativity, and is, as restaurant lists go, reasonably priced. There are 47 bottles, with more than half in the $18-$25 range, representing several French, Italian, Californian and Spanish regions and including, thankfully, a rosé (why do so many restaurants forget the summer appeal of a good, dry rosé?). Wines by the glass check in between $5-$7, including a house-made white sangria.

Bastante doesn't make desserts but brings them in from an outside provider. None of them -- white chocolate raspberry cheesecake, Kahlúa cheesecake and macadamia nut chocolate cake, to name just a few -- are remotely Mediterranean, though all were tasty. A selection of lighter sweets would do well to add balance here. The coffee, served at the table in a French press, is a rich blend provided by Kaldi's.

When all was said and done, my friend was sort of right. But Bastante doesn't bill itself as a strictly tapas eatery. In fact, the word isn't even on the menu. There are other notions to rebel against in this world, but a good night out sharing a fine meal with friends isn't one of them.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.