By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I can only imagine how many mispronunciations the people at Bar Pintxo must have endured. I have heard “Pintesho” and “Pinto” from people who assumed the X was either silent or pronounced in its entirety, both of which would grate on the ears of a Basque native. Pintxo, a Spanish-style appetizer on grilled bread that originated in the Basque region of northern Spain, is correctly pronounced something like “pin-cho.”
Diction aside, the food here isn’t particularly Basque — it’s a pan-Spanish array of tapas, served in a cozy setting. A sushi-style bar seats about 10 people by the entrance, and a small dining room in the back is lined with shelves of wine and Spanish products. I visited the restaurant with the owner of a cooking school, so we sat at the bar to watch the action in the kitchen.
We started with empanadas and, in honor of the restaurant’s name, a pintxo of marinated sardines and anchovies. The pintxo — Italian bruschetta by another name — was delicious, a smoky grilled bread layered with chopped bell pepper, onion and tomato with fish filets on top. If you have only had anchovies on pizza and sardines from cans, you might not recognize these: the fish was marinated in vinegar and had a delightful richness and tang.
As for the empanadas, the expertly made pastry was stuffed with braised lamb shoulder, tender and rich. It was a perfect sequence of flavors, light and tart followed by rich, and the wines we ordered had to be versatile. Our first glasses were an effervescent Txakolina (Chack-o-lina) and a pleasant off-dry Rias Baixas. The wine list here is almost exclusively Spanish and has some excellent selections.
We continued with a daily special flatbread called coca, made that day with duck salami, mahon cheese, green beans and caramelized onions with a sherry-garlic glaze. This was the least successful item, not because the flavors weren’t good together — they were — but because the chewy salami was in large pieces that made it difficult to eat without sending the toppings onto your lap. Had the meat been cut smaller and the cheese spread more widely instead of being a lump in the middle, this would have been a winner.
We finished our wines while watching the staff work behind the counter. They answered questions despite a hefty workload, and my companion praised their smooth teamwork in tight quarters.
Our next item was lamb meatballs stuffed with pickled grapes over a mix of sautéed kale and toasted pumpkin seeds. This dish was spectacular. The sweet-tart grapes inside the rich meatballs laced with green herbs were startling, even though we knew they were in there, and an unlikely but excellent contrast with the kale.
The final savory dish was beef cheek braised in wine with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, parsley and shards of purple onion. Beef cheek is a low-fat meat that is inedible if cooked quickly but has a soft, almost creamy texture if slow-braised. Ours was fork-tender and rich. The texture almost matched the mushrooms, which had a clean, delicately musky flavor that enhanced the beef. The beef cheek at Pintxo is paired with various vegetables depending on what is available, but I find it hard to imagine a pairing that would top this one.
Our server, Irena, had been spot-on with her recommendations, so we asked her for wines to match the red meat courses. She hit the jackpot with Biga Tempranillo and a blend from Mallorca called Anima Negra.
We finished with Spanish-style churros, which are denser than the Mexican variety and without the distinctive fluting that makes them crisp. They’re different and delicious, served hot from the fryer with a cup of thick hot chocolate for dipping.
Our bill totaled $115 with four glasses of wine — very fair for an excellent meal with good service near the beach in Santa Monica. I’ll be back for clam and pork belly stew, paella and further exploration of that wine list.
Bar Pintxo is open from noon to 10 p.m. Sundays through Tuesdays, noon to 11 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, and from noon to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Vegetarian options are available. Park on the street or in nearby lots. Bar Pintxo, 109 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 458-2012 barpintxo.com