Good things on small plates.
by M.B. Lewis
Open for business under the giant TAPAS sign on Washington St. only since November, Aventura has already established its ambition and potential to provide an outstanding night out. Eating here is a social adventure, with communal tasting experiences that promote discussion and excitement. Could it be the tipping-point joint Ann Arbor has been waiting for to be truly "in the game" with Chicago, D.C., and Portland, if not New York and L.A.?
Sprawling across several storefronts, its elegant interior brick-walled and open, it manages to feel like both a church transept and an old-world wine cave. A dark floral mosaic on one wall sets a dramatic tone. Long bins of fruit slices lining the bar, servers hoisting elaborate multispout porron-style wine decanters, and standing half-carved dark red hams give you a peek at the menu before you're even seated.
Lots of local places offer small plates--some with Euro and even Latin flair--but none match Aventura for real-deal tapas building blocks like Spanish olives, cheeses (sheep, cow, and goat), and charcuterie (Iberico and Serrano ham, dry salami, and sausages galore). If you're new to the cuisine, there are oodles of bilingual menu items to peruse and discuss. Even more helpful are the knowledgeable servers (they take twelve-page tests!), who will likely suggest you lubricate the ordering process with a Spanish-style cocktail, like the sherry-tinged rye whiskey Olor Oso Conmigo with housemade fig syrup and a lovely sage leaf floating atop. It's good, but even better is the Aventura take on the centuries-old Sazerac that combines a swirl of absinthe with whiskey and bitters for a glorious magenta powerhouse of a drink. Also available are a wide selection of wines by the glass.
Can you remember the last time you ordered a two-dollar appetizer at an upscale restaurant? Pintxos start that low at Aventura and top out at four bucks for a few bites of varied meat, seafood, cheese, and fruit combos, skewered and stuck into a slice of bread
with a slosh of aioli (or, in one iteration, creamy honeydew melon mousse). Huevo y gamba boasted a yummy, creamy-yolked deviled egg and spicy grilled shrimp on its little stick. A small starter of mild Mahon cheese, served creamy at room temperature, paired perfectly with generous cubes of super-flavorful and not-too-sweet guava paste. An out-and-out steal was a $5 bowl of hearty kale-potato-chorizo-bean soup with rich tomato broth made even meatier with a bit of bacon. Served with bread, it's almost a meal in itself.
Before we knew how filling the soup would be, we'd already ordered several more small plates. A platoon of Bluetooth earpiece-wearing runners brought them out in succession. Exciting, but a little frenetic--this is definitely event dining, full of debate about the food: What to order, how to balance a meal, what's coming next, should we order more? It's a great place for family and friends willing to share plates and bites--for a business meeting or blind date, not so much.
We sampled two of the five listed salads on a first visit, and couldn't decide which was the most fresh and delicious: Brussels sprout leaves tossed in a sherry vinaigrette with sweet pickled grape halves, Marcona almond pieces, and Manchego cheese; or arugula with hazelnuts, dried cherries, Valdeon bleu cheese, and spiced poached pears (red and white, and the juice goes into the house sangrias). We couldn't fathom, though, why the arugula cost $12--twice as much as the sprout leaves. Except for the poached pears, isn't this basically the omnipresent Michigan salad on a study abroad year in Spain?
Tapas-standard bacon-wrapped dates are customized here with a spot of chorizo sausage and a bed of lightly garlicky-peppery romescu sauce. We quickly ploughed through them all and saw several other tables finishing off theirs as well (considering the vastness of the fifty-plus-item menu, it's notable how popular these meaty dates are). Octopus medallions cooked with oil, salt, paprika, and potatoes at high heat made for a darn-near addictive version of pulpo a la Gallega (Galicia's signature dish). Next time, though, I won't order short ribs and fried potatoes at the same time--talk about meat-and-carb overload!
The three of us had already eaten so much that groans arose from our table when the final two plates arrived: six slider-size burgerettes on fluffy brioche buns. Three were BBQ pork--our lame attempt to get in the spirit of the roast suckling pig platter we didn't get a chance to try. More memorable were the tender sliced lamb sandwiches with caramelized onions, lemon aioli, a slip of arugula for color, and a finishing touch of Manchego cheese. I figured we'd take some home, but hardly a crumb was left.
Back a few nights later to try the communal paella, we went lighter on the starters. Roasted fennel tossed with oranges, olives, and mint proved as tasty as the other salads we'd sampled, although a bit more oily. Bright steamed spinach with pine nuts and raisins had a fresh aura, but again, a lot of citrus-flavored oil.
The heavily dressed vegetables had been filling, but that's not why a substantial amount of our paella was left uneaten. The seafood on top was good (even the beady-eyed prawns) and the tiny peas sweet and adorable, but the rice on the bottom of the skillet was burnt beyond recognition. The problem could have been too much peppery red sauce, or maybe it was a second-string cook on a snowy January night at a new restaurant.
"That's how they do it Spain," our server claimed when shown our growing pile of discarded blackened rice. An expert I consulted later disagreed, and the staff did acknowledge that not all customers like it so "well done." Perhaps Aventura will rethink this preparation--$45 is a lot to pay for just the top of a paella.
Dessert provided sweet balm: fluffy hot churros encrusted with cinnamon sugar and served with three phenomenal dipping sauces: sweet wine, creme anglaise, and rich chocolate. Tiny specialty espresso-based coffees left us smiling and sighing contentedly.
Yes, we'd had a stumble or two along the way, but this is a very young restaurant taking on centuries-old cuisine. It has charisma and rough authenticity on most fronts, excellence on several. The remaining fine-tuning should be well worth the wait.
Aventura 216 E. Washington, 369-3153 Aventuraannarbor.com
Starters $2-$14, salads $6-12, tapas small plates $4-$14, communal (for 4-6) paella and roasted suckling pig platters $30-$45.
Kitchen: daily 5 p.m.-midnight. Bar: daily 3:30 p.m.-2 a.m.
[Originally published in February, 2014.]