New England Regional | Tastes and Tables
Time for Tapas
Fine Spanish fare served with exuberance in eclectic surroundings
Our first clue that dining at Dali Restaurant and Tapas Bar would be an out-of-the-ordinary experience came when we called to make reservations for 9 p.m. The cheerful gentleman who answered the phone told us Dali holds tables only for large groups and only until 6:30 p.m. Very well, we replied, if a smaller party arrived at our preferred time, how long might it take to be seated? Our host declined to estimate. Instead without actually telling us to chill out he invited us to arrive earlier and unwind in the bar while waiting for our table. "Enjoy life with us," he said. "Dress to kill, bring your lovey-dovey, and forget about the clock." We took his advice. We were glad we did.
Actually, we quickly discovered that Dali's dress code, like virtually everything else about this 15-year-old hot spot on the Cambridge-Somerville line, is hard to pigeonhole. Dali's website describes it this way: "casual elegance (pearls and jeans)." In other words: use your imagination.
The ambience, too, defies categorization. It's not romantic, at least not in the standard candlelit-table-for-two way; the restaurant is usually too crowded for truly intimate dining. And yet the entire place exudes festive sensuality, thanks to its gregarious wait staff and the gloriously cluttered décor, which includes murals, tiles, tapestries, bead curtains, copper ceilings, and gold-leafed archways that, like surrealist paintings, appear to be melting.
Dali's owners are passionate about their tapas, the tasty appetizers that diners typically sample with icy sangría (small pitcher, three to four glasses, $18; large pitcher, seven to eight glasses, $34.) The menu offers more than 40 different varieties of these treats some cold, some hot, some perennials, some seasonal specialties priced from $3 to $8.50 a plate.
Our choices included filloa de vegetales ($5.50), a hot, crisp, slightly sweet vegetable crêpe stuffed with spinach and onions; patatas ali-oli ($4.50), a cold potato salad dressed with a fresh garlic-caper mayonnaise; and ravioles de mariscos ($7), tender, surprisingly spicy lobster-crabmeat ravioli with langostino sauce. The table's designated carnivore raved about faisán a la Alcántara ($7.50), boneless pheasant with mushrooms and Serrano ham, a smoky combination that he said perfectly complemented the fowl's natural gaminess rather than disguising it. Our overall favorite: the savory pimiento del piquillo ($8.50), wood-roasted pimento with shrimp stuffing.
Those seeking heartier fare can select from several full-sized platos principales. On a second visit, we considered trying Dali's signature dish, pescado a la sal ($24), fish baked in coarse salt, but ultimately opted to split an order of paella del oceano ($24). We found the classic Spanish saffron-rice dish creamy, well stocked with fresh seafood, and served in a portion generous enough to satisfy us both.
Dessert may seem an impossibility at Dali, but tarta de Santiago ($5.50) a dense, flourless almond cake, proved a fine antidote to all the richness on both our visits.
And both times, we adhered to our anonymous adviser's instructions, enjoying life and completely forgetting about the clock.