Sailing to Canton
Tasca de Plata and Matsu Chan reviewed
by Bix Engels
Suburban Canton is an easy twenty-minute drive from Ann Arbor. Although its big-box "downtown" sits squarely at the corner of Bland and Stripmall, it's also got restaurants unlike any you'll find in Ann Arbor.
Housed in a shiny chrome traileresque building that was once the Central City Diner, Tasca de Plata certainly stands out. Inside, owner José Montes has Spanished up the fifties Americana with fringed shawls and other Iberian accessories. Photos of his mother, a noted flamenco dancer, abound. His daughters carry on the flamenco tradition, dancing on the small stage here Fridays and Saturdays. Maybe if you squint and drink enough sangria, the vinyl chairs and the tile floor will feel like a beach joint on the Costa del Sol.
I wouldn't usually drive this far for bar food, but tapas-small, shareable dishes developed over centuries in the tascas of Spain-are bar food of the highest order. A village tasca might have a few simple offerings like cheese and ham, and a street café in Barcelona might have fifty or more. Tasca de Plata has a respectable thirty hot and cold tapas.
We dove in by ordering a few dishes, talking, drinking, and sampling - and then ordering a few more. I ate a lot of tapas during a recent trip around Catalonia, where my husband dragged me to all the restaurants he couldn't afford as a penniless student on his long-ago junior year abroad, and I thought Tasca de Plata's were nearly all spot-on. Four fat shrimp mellowed out in an earthenware bowl of garlic butter; a plate of sautéed potatoes dusted with smoked paprika contrasted with bits of chorizo; rotund green olives had Spanish anchovies swimming through their midsection; boquerones en vinagreta, slender silvery anchovies marinated in vinegar, waited to be popped in the mouth whole in one quick bite. A plate of anemic tomatoes had me pining for August; still, grilling and topping them with goat cheese helped to overcome their seasonal deficiencies.
tried to describe chipirones en su tinta (whole baby squid in its ink) to the waitress, who seemed unfamiliar with Spanish food and was most comfortable taking orders by the numbers. She came back with a dish that was not what we'd hoped for, though not bad - strips of calamari steak, lightly battered, fried, and quite tender. Oh well. In the serrano ham croquettes, the renowned cured ham was diced, bound with béchamel sauce, and rolled in bread crumbs before being deep fried. The result was a crunchy nugget that opens up to a creamy filling, although I would have welcomed more intense serrano flavor. The house tapas plate was a respectable array of manchego cheese, serrano ham, and mild Spanish chorizo. The manchego lacked that distinct saltiness and tang, or maybe the slices were so thin I couldn't grab hold of the flavor. The single greatest shortcoming of a tapas night here was the bread, a sliced spongy baguette in a basket with little packs of butter.
Back a few weeks later with a different group of friends, we focused on the paella. It can take up to an hour to prepare, so you might want to call ahead and let the kitchen know you plan to order it. We did, and it still took forty-five minutes (which was fine - I hate to rush). After a round of wine and tapas, the waitress brought out the Valencian-style paella in its classic shallow, flat pan. It was beautiful: the saffron-yellow rice, the bright green peas, the red strips of pimiento, and the shiny black mussels and matte white clams arrayed around its perimeter. Yet, once we tucked in, it only partially lived up to its good looks. The stubby short-grained rice was delicious, toothsome and full of the myriad of flavors absorbed from the seafood and chicken. But not all the shellfish was up to par - the shrimp and squid were flavorful, but the bay scallops were overcooked and the mussels gritty and off-tasting.
Some of the menu is given over to Mexican food, perhaps as a sop to people who equate Spanish with Mexican. The only time we ventured south of the border was for dessert, splitting a slice of tres leches cake, a sponge-cake base under a half-inch deep layer of whipped cream. The tres leches in the name - condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream - gave it a moist, dense texture and, despite its elaborate appearance with curlicues of whipped cream and swirls of raspberry syrup, it was not overly sugary.
The wine list carries well-priced New and Old World Spanish and Spanish-style wines, about a dozen of which are available by the glass for $6-$9. On Wednesday, bottles are half price, so four of us split a Martín Códax Ergo Tempranillo from Rioja, and, although slightly tannic for my taste, it was a terrific bargain at $16.50. If you are looking for whites, the peachy Brandal Albariño was nicely balanced. They make their own sangria here.
Service was exceptionally pleasant if not particularly speedy. One difficult aspect of visiting here, particularly for people coming from Ann Arbor, is that Tasca de Plata does not post its hours on its menu, website, or even the door, and does not have voicemail or an answering machine to give the caller a clue as to whether anyone is going to be there (the hours listed below were given me over the phone, so you might want to call before you set out). On both of my visits, the dining room was nearly empty, which makes me worry about its longevity.
That's a shame, because it's worth the drive. For all the attempts on Main Street, nobody here does tapas as authentically as they do at Tasca de Plata.
Tasca de Plata
6600 N. Canton Center Rd. Canton 459-7685
Tues.-Thurs. & Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Closed Mon.
Tapas $5.50-$9.95, salads $5.95-$9.95, Spanish entrées $13.95-$23.95, Mexican and American dishes $5.95-$12.95, paella (serves 2-6 people) $26-$32
Easily accessible to the disabled.
[Originally published in June, 2009.]