Modesto: Big Flavor in Little Packages

There are certain foods people either love or hate, with little gray space in between. Some people abhor cilantro and olives for their distinctive flavors. Some refuse to eat raw seafood because they don’t care for the texture. And some people don’t like tapas; my theory is that they feel they aren’t getting enough food for the money.

I’m more ambivalent. I do think grazing on small plates is an expensive way to dine. And, while the mega portions served in some restaurants today are nauseating, sometimes I just want a normal-sized plate of food to call my own. But when I want variety and the freedom to build a meal, tapas are a natural choice. Enter Modesto, which has been firmly planted on The Hill for a decade, and for good reason. The lists of cold and hot tapas here – the meats, the cheeses, the vegetables, seafoods and sweets – are enough to make anyone salivate.

Where to start? A glass of sherry or Sangria is fitting, along with a plate of thinly sliced jamón Serrano, which, when draped delicately across the tongue, melts salty and pasturesque. Among our sampled vegetable dishes, the Croquetas de Setas, or creamy mushroom and garlic croquettes, were excellent; steamy, earthy velvet suspended in a deeply browned and crispy breading. Sitting on a bed of bright aïoli, these potent little orbs are addictive.

Deep-fried cauliflower drizzled with truffle oil was crying for a pinch of salt and sprinkle of lemon juice, and after we administered each, this dish was also quite good. Salads feature enticing add-ins like almonds, Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, and a lovely and tangy sherry vinaigrette.

I wasn’t fond of the gazpacho (a bit too thick and reminiscent of smooth jarred salsa for my taste), but it’s very clear that chef Grace Dinsmoor has done extensive research in the form of traveling and tasting her way through Spain, and she stays true to the ingredients and flavors of traditional tapas.

There were some great seafood and meat dishes, too. Shrimp croquettes were just as decadent as the mushroom variety, and the grilled octopus, served with a little lemon, paprika and thinly sliced potatoes, was nice and meaty, not too tough.

Entrecot a la Plancha, or grilled rib-eye, was sliced thin and served on toasty bread with Manchego; it was so good and simple. The Manchego took on a caramelized crispiness like the cheese that melts onto the griddle when you make a toasted cheese, adding a nutty note to the dish.

The Paella Mixta was pretty but not as successful. Chicken, shrimp, chorizo, mussels, clams and veggies mingled amongst the saffron rice; the abundance of fresh seafood lessened the pang of disappointment in the rice’s lack of saffron flavor and slightly mushy texture.

Instead of sampling several desserts, we got the flan each time – it’s that good. Some flans around town lack that appealing eggy flavor and, texturally, are closer to crème brûlée than the jiggly flan I prefer. Modesto’s is nice and eggy, though the custard’s jiggly texture was interrupted by hundreds of little air bubbles, perhaps due to overmixing the eggs.

The wine list is exclusively Spanish, with some by-the-glass offerings, such as a nice 2007 Rioja Arbanta. Servers are friendly and knowledgeable, and service moves along smoothly, even when the restaurant is busy.

Modesto translates to “modest,” in reference to the typically restrained portions of tapas. But this restaurant is certainly not modest in atmosphere and décor. Bright reds, warm yellows and a vibrant atmosphere fill the air with life. Big families with young children are just as at home as dreamy-eyed first dates.

Where: Modesto, 5257 Shaw Ave., St. Louis, 314.772.8272
When: Mon. to Thu. – 5 to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 11 p.m.
Don’t-Miss Dishes: Mushroom croquettes, shrimp croquettes, grilled rib-eye with Manchego on grilled bread.
Vibe: A warm décor and friendly staff add up to a casual, festive atmosphere.
Prices: $5 to $20