Reviews of Ondo’s, both pro & amateur, largely agree: the cooking, courtesy of Spanish-trained chef-owners Curt & Deicy Steinbecker, is the real delightful deal; the bland Cherry Creek ambiance is anything but. Well, I’ve got nothing to add to that consensus, but at least I can concur in my own inimitable style.
There’s something about the tradition of tapas that, perhaps more than most cuisines, demands commensurate atmsophere—the leisurely intimacy, I suppose, of sharing small plates over the course of a night of imbibing. Anything other than a rustic, cozy, preferably subterranean or at least windowless space in which candles flicker & a lone guitarist pines for the rugged hills of Andalucia just doesn’t cut it. Ondo’s is below street level, but otherwise it falls jarringly short: the dining room decor looks downright cheap, with flimsy tables & chairs awkwardly spaced—too far apart in the center, leaving swathes of industrial gray carpet, but too close along the wall lined with the usual landscape posters. Granted, the tight seating there makes for juicy eavesdropping—apologies to the clearly frustrated hipster guy whose ladyfriend, professing food allergies, wouldn’t eat anything, glancing at our table from time to time to whine, “I wish I’d known to get that—I don’t understand how to order from this menu!”
Darlin,’ as long as you know how to read English, it ain’t any different than ordering from any other small-plates menu. Even Spanish words like pinxtos & bocadillos are clearly defined as “tapas on toasted bread,” “sandwiches,” etc. How did we “know” to get the cazuelita (clay pot dish) de setas? Because the menu described it as “grilled oyster mushrooms with broiled with garlic & parsley.” It looked good on paper; we ordered it with our mouths. No arcane expertise, innate genius, or mental telepathy required.
And it was good, very. Plump & meaty, oyster mushrooms really do possess something of the sea-gray savor of their namesake, but they also gained a brightness from the garlicky olive oil & parsley, plus a bit of smokiness via paprika.
I’ll give dumb-bunny ladyfriend this: tuna salad on toast might seem like a mistake to anyone unfamiliar with the excellence of Spain’s canned seafood. Years ago, Saveur devoted a whole cover story to the topic; Ondo’s bonito del Norte pinxto provides a clear indication of why.
Atop a crusty baguette slice, this tuna salad was the richest, smoothest, creamiest version I’ve ever tasted; the red pepper–touched shrimp on top added a bit of sweetness it hardly needed (even less so the reduced balsamic vinegar on bottom), though their firm-fleshed texture did enhance the mouthfeel.
Of course, perhaps the most straightforward way to judge a tapas bar is by the quality of its solid-gold standards—most of which, like pan con tomate, patatas bravas, & tortilla española, we skipped. But we did try a surprisingly large order of spinach & pinenut croquettes, wonderfully flavored with what I think was red pepper aioli & a touch of liqueur—I’m guessing some sort of anisette, which wouldn’t be unheard of with spinach & pinenuts in either Italy or Spain.
Classic solomillo in blue cheese sauce was also beautifully done—the tenderloin so tender it was almost all juice, the sauce so silken its funky tang came almost as a surprise. The crisped-to-ribbons side of potato gratin was unnecessary, but lovely just the same.
The first bite was blinding: it was as though I’d never experienced contrasting textures or complementary flavors before. A bit of luscious, pure egg; a bit of charred, then unctuous sausage; a bit of creamy-sweet creamy cream-cheesy cream. Gorgeous; I don’t know how else to say it.
Next time I go, which will be soon, I’ll sit at the bar with my back to the ugly room; the food will provide all the atmosphere I need.
On that note, happy new year.