Bouncing on a Spanish lady’s knee to some classic flamenco by Lole y Manuel, our baby beamed as his puppeteer clapped his hands in a flourish. He may have been the happiest gordito in Warren’s brand-new Merienda, but his weren’t the only smiles. Our dear Itagnolo friends were the perfect company to enjoy a restaurant featuring Spanish tapas and Italian cicchetti. Merienda is named for the Spanish word for snack, but as usual, we ate through much of the menu.
The piquillos may put your mouth in Navarre, but your eyes will insist you are in colonial New England; foot-wide floorboards and exposed wood beams abound, and nothing is square. Trying to make this property look like anything else would have been a disservice to its New England charm, so I was happy they didn’t plaster bulls everywhere.
We began by doing what we’d do in Spain, i.e., ignore the country’s beer and get to the wine – in this case Avaniel, a nicely fruity Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero ($25). I’ve always loved Spain for delivering delicious table wine with minimal pretense and at a low price. Merienda’s wine menu stood out by following suit. A $25 bottle menu composed of five reds and five whites was perfect for a table of four. Even off this menu, you are spoiled for economical choices, by the glass and bottle.
Then the plates, more than I can list, began arriving. As in Spain, most dishes, in name as well as composition, are straightforward. We started with a small bowl of Citrus Marinated Olives on the house, followed by Piquillo Peppers stuffed with goat cheese ($6). The kitchen’s textbook approach to the piquillo peppers set the tone for the whole meal. The goat cheese was cut with ricotta, giving it a lighter texture, and a milder, sweeter taste. Gently herbed, it had a flavor profile as clean and simple as the plating: white cheese inside bright red pepper on a white plate. Every element was as clear as a bell.
Butifarra ($8) was next, a traditional Spanish sausage served with white beans. I split this with my wife, but it will anchor a meal if I’m back here ordering for myself. True to Spanish form, this dish features two things paired well together. The beans were nicely cooked and subtly seasoned, and the grilled sausage was a thing of beauty. Each sectioned, bite-sized piece was emblazoned with a stripe of char. I heaped some Escalivada ($5) from a plate being passed around the table, a humble side dish of grilled vegetables.
More remarkable was what was on special that day: Morcilla and Potato Croquetas ($7). Morcilla is a Spanish blood sausage. I’d not had it in croquetas before but it really worked – dark and comforting inside the crisp breading. As a break I popped a couple of the Marinated Mushrooms ($3), which were unexpectedly spicy and a nice change of pace. The other mushroom dish, Setas ($7), was herbed and sautéed, more consistent with my experiences in Spanish cuisine. I was happy that they gave me a spoon to finish off the delicious reserved juices.
Still it kept coming. The Calamari ($7) was fairly plain but a generous portion and perfectly battered. The Italian Tuna Salad ($5) was delicious, but more Italian tuna (tonno) than Italian salad – essentially a bright and even spicy tuna salad on toast. The Espinacas Dish ($6) was well composed, adding healthy sides of raisins, apples and pine nuts to gently wilted spinach. On the flip side, Patatas Bravas are my guilty pleasure, here made naughtier still by adding aioli as a dip for the crispy fried potato chunks, not just the necessary red tomato-based sauce.
We finished with both of the dessert options: a Cannoli ($5) and Crème Caramel ($6). In the photos I took of these dishes, the plates are, tellingly, almost completely eaten, the cannoli reduced to pastry shrapnel. I loved this cannoli, which was not the completely Americanized variety, meaning the filling had the taste of dairy, not just of sugar.
The U.S. has embraced Spanish cuisine, especially tapas, which neatly dovetails with the current trend of small plate concepts. In restaurant form, with waitresses dressed uniformly in black, the rowdy, bustling feel of tapas in Spain gets a bit lost in translation, but there’s no recipe for that. Merienda’s back room with a bar has a more casual, airy feel and the wine is attractively priced; the rest is up to Warren. Afterwards, the chef’s eagerness to hear the opinions of the Spanish and Italian eaters on the way out reflected a passionate desire to honor traditional cuisine. This had already come through on the plate.
125 Water Street, Warren