At El Chipirón, we wanted a delicious love letter from Spain; we got a text

Dec 18, 2017
Squid ink lends a dramatic presentational flair to rice and mussels at El Chipirón. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The humdrum roll of interchangeable restaurant openings can lull you into a stupor. Another New American or Italian spot announces its arrival, and your mind numbly continues its virtual swiping. Then something different and largely unexplored appears on the horizon, maybe at the crest of a hill, say one on South Lamar Boulevard, and your senses awaken.

Despite its location in another generic mixed-use box, El Chipirón (the logo’s accent mark a splash of surrealist paint) had the promise of something different. Yes, Austin’s dining scene has a few Iberian entries, but when Spanish chef Pablo Gomez’s El Chipirón arrived in the summer it had been two years since a Spanish restaurant had opened in Austin. And amid the city’s slogging homogeneity, a new restaurant with Spanish roots felt downright exotic, a welcome breeze from across the Atlantic.

When an underrepresented dining culture arrives on Austin’s shores, it can often be cause for celebration, whether it be South American at Cafe Nena’i or a Taste of Ethiopia in Pflugerville and on South Congress Avenue. With the restaurants come the possibility of education and a chance to delve into culture through cuisine.

Unfortunately, El Chipirón feels more like a harried text from Spain than a thoughtful, handwritten love letter. The cultural exploration evinced is akin to having a long layover at the Madrid airport and reporting back to friends that you had “visited Spain.” That is not to say that the restaurant is bad; it just leaves you wanting so much more.

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When you imagine Spanish restaurants, you think of hopscotching a roster of tapas or pinchos (small snacks) with glasses of wine. Though the restaurant’s opening news release promised a diverse array of pinchos (the phrase “kid in a candy store” was used), all you find at El Chipirón are admirably crunchy and tangy patatas bravas, tender octopus and humdrum dishes of blistered peppers and olives and tomatoes ($6 each). Not only are the offerings narrow in scope, but you can order them only during happy hour and only seated on the pogo stick-like saddle stools at the elegant and ample bar that sits at the front of the thoughtfully designed space, colored in tones of coral, sage and lavender and hued with light that is both honeyed and crystalline.

Boards of cured meats and a variety of cheeses and accoutrements are a nice way to start a meal at El Chipirón. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

You can supplement pre-dinner orderings with a trio of boards, one carrying sheened nutty slices of jamon Ibérico along with manchego and Spanish goat cheese ($15), the others focusing solely on cheese ($20) or cured Spanish pork products ($18), which also serve as a nice point of entry to a tight but affordable Spanish wine list.

The rest of the compact menu, comprised almost wholly of small shareable plates, can be tackled by a table of four in one visit. The tomato and cucumber salad tingly with capers ($12), and the red and golden beets sweetened with cava and simple syrup, dusted with the earth of olive soil and served curiously with watermelon ($14) would have been fine if they were surrounded by other salad or vegetable options, but variety is not the specialty here. There’s one vegetable salad with a cured egg ($12), but how about a portion of the menu devoted to grilled, roasted or sauteed veggies?

The depth of squid ink-darkened rice with supple ringlets of squid and plump scallops jazzed with a zip of aioli ($16), a garlic-studded and Albarino-infused broth swimming with mussels that hid funky nuggets of chorizo ($15), and excellent octopus tenderized to beautiful consistency by being dipped repeatedly in boiling water ($16) all displayed the kitchen’s facility with seafood and were also emblematic of the restaurant in that they showed plenty of intriguing promise but stopped short on fully delivering on that promise.

I longed for the excitement and excavation that comes with a mind-bending paella like the one found at Tarsan I Jane in Seattle (maybe if I’d come on Tuesday night, the only day El Chipirón serves the dish), the lush comfort of an uni panini like that at El Quinto Pino in New York or, closer to home, the plate of jamón-cured egg with roasted mushrooms at Bullfight. But the small menu came to its quick terminus with the only two entrees, a perfectly seared and rosy strip steak rich with demi glace ($44) and a juicy half-chicken en pepitoria ($33), the nuttiness of the homey, traditional dish balanced by the bitter bite and sweet crunch of arugula and apple. Both dishes were executed well enough to almost make me forget the gamey and unappealing flavor of pork served with braised greens that lingered from the small plates section of the menu ($18).

Desserts, a rice pudding layered with wine-poached pears ($8) and crunchy, airy churros served with a slow-motion pour of chocolate dipping sauce ($8), felt like admirable but cost-conscious efforts at best and an afterthought at worst.

Outside of a marvelous gin and tonic menu — featuring exotic and effervescent combinations ranging from the forbidden garden allure of elderflower tonic, raspberry, strawberry and cardamom, afloat with flower petals in a Gypsy Flower ($12) to the boozy spa elixir of the Tranquilo ($12), cooled with cucumber and piqued with peppercorns — the entire affair felt incomplete, rushed and hanging on for dear life.

The dining room and bar feature nice, simple design touches like a cloudlike marble bar, dangling light fixtures and ropes that give a sense of depth and layering to the space. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

But I’m not sure the restaurant’s limited scope speaks to a lack of imagination from Gomez, who curiously patrolled only the front of the house on each of my visits. It feels more a byproduct of a lack of resources and an attempt to just keep the operation afloat, rearranging limited ingredients into a menu that hints at Spain without necessarily speaking for it. And, even more troubling, it seems to highlight and indict the broader cravings and attitudes of Austin diners. Do they even want something outside their regular realm of experience? Or do they just hunger for comfort or glitz? Maybe if there were more to get excited about at El Chipirón, there’d be more excitement.

I imagine it’s hard for an out-of-town chef to move to Austin and attempt to read the minds or anticipate the tastes of a dining public that largely still has some maturing to do. You listen to a developer, and you end up in a cookie-cutter mixed-use box on a perilous corner of the speedway that is South Lamar. You pour rent money into an empty space while awaiting opening, then have trouble attracting diners, so you simplify your menu and take the teeth out of it, allowing it to become just a shade removed from a generic bistro with a Spanish accent.

I know it must be terrifying to enter this or any market as a restaurateur, but I think Gomez would be wise to stick to his guns and double down on his passion and creativity. Try the old “build it and they will come” idea. He may not be able to move to a more suitable space — I’d rather see this restaurant in a building like Lenoir’s, a cozy and captivating nook in East Austin or an elegant stand-alone space — but Gomez must fight where he stands, and if he goes down, then go down swinging. And, yes, I know it’s easier for me to say that from the comfort of my computer than staring into the face of troubling financial projections, but stirring up this scene is going to require more passion and muscle.

Churros can be dipped in the slow-motion pour of hot chocolate. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff