We like Binomio, the three-year-old Spanish restaurant where we sometimes go for tasty paella and tapas. So it stands to reason that we’d absolutely adore its slightly cheaper spin-off sibling eatery El Tardeo, which opened three weeks ago next door, right? Or so we thought. But more on that later.
While Binomio is a fine-diner with a small tapas bar headed by Santi alum Jose Alonso, El Tardeo is a spacious casual outfit specialising in pintxos and cocktails. Brief culinary lesson: pintxos (say ‘peen-chos’) is almost like tapas, but with subtle differences. Broadly speaking, it’s what people from the autonomous Basque Country in Spain — particularly San Sebastian (which has a super high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants) — call humble finger snacks often served on slices of bread. Pintxos means “spike” in Basque, and it refers to the toothpick piercing the bits together.
THE LOOK: First, the good stuff — the vibe here is great. It’s bustling with Spanish expats and locals when we walk in one Friday evening. There are paintings with riotous colours, well spaced-out tables and an al fresco area where we are treated to the unfortunate sight of an SPG making out with a chubby middle-aged dude. Thank heavens we’re seated at the bar instead. Half of the counter is covered by an attractive glass shelf housing various cold pintxos, like a more modestly stocked version of the ones we saw while holidaying in San Sebastian. However, we are ushered to the quieter end where the bartenders fix drinks. But that’s not a bad thing — the boyish manager who serves us is friendly and accommodating. He dramatically dumps our half-filled flute of cava (poured from a near-empty bottle) down the sink and complies when we jokingly say: “Why not just fill our glass with the freshly-opened bottle instead?” We’re shocked but impressed.
THE FOOD: Boss Jose, a La Rioja native (which is near the Basque Country) doesn’t cook here. Instead, Binomio chef, Carlos Yau, a Chinese-Spaniard, helms the kitchen. We’ve been to Binomio while Carlos was cooking and had no complaints.
Today, however, is a different story. Perhaps the chefs are still trying to break into the new kitchen here, but the food this evening is a let-down. The menu is separated into roughly 30 cold and hot pintxos, all charged per piece. Prices are slightly cheaper than at Binomio, partly because of the smaller portion sizes. We tick our chosen items on a list and hand it to the waiter, Tim Ho Wan style. While pre-assembled, sometimes stale, cold pintxos eaten off the counter isn’t always fabulous even in Spain (the freshly cooked ones can’t be beat), it simply doesn’t work in humid Singapore.
The Tortilla ($4), a thick wedge of Spanish omelette, is like the colder, leftover cousin of Binomio’s delightful version. Languishing beneath it is a slice of soggy baguette. The Octopus with Mini Potatoes & Smoked Paprika ($5) looks promising: fat purple-rimmed discs dolloped with spiced mayo. Instead of a party of flavours, our lips meet cold, bafflingly bland, limp flesh on more of that lifeless bread. We desperately turn to the hot items. But the Fried Pig Trotter Croquette ($5) somehow manages to be almost tasteless for a deep-fried dish. It is somewhat salvaged by the chunks of briny chorizo skewered along with it. Also under-salted: the Grilled Mushrooms and Shrimps ($4). And while the Potato Chips and Jamon Iberico with Fried Egg ($22) boasts deliciously unctuous ham and oozy yolks, the frozen shoestring fries they’re forced to fraternise with in place of the usual hand-cut potatoes are embarrassing.
VERDICT: Buzzy vibe, good prices, disappointing snacks. Consolation: the affordable house cava, which costs just $7 a glass and $35 a bottle.
#01-01 CRAIG PLACE, 20 CRAIG RD, S089692. TEL: 6221-6288. Open daily except Sun, 5pm-midnight. Last orders at 11.45pm. El Tardeo's FaceBook