At the end of a three-hour feast at La Vasca in Newport, having done our level best to hit as much of the menu as possible, our Spanish friend Esther revealed her devastating criticism to the owners: there were several eñe’s missing. With two Spanish professors at the table, and the bottle of “capra loca” Ribero del Duero ($38) polished off, one could hear the sound of pens being unsheathed like so many espadas. The corrected menu was delivered, somewhat apologetically. Take note: if you’re serving a Spaniard sardines and only getting spelling corrections, you are doing something very right.
Not that this is so unexpected. La Vasca is from the Stoneacre Pantry folks, sprouting up at an otherwise unchanged Thames Street location while they move Stoneacre to a larger place on Washington Square. Looking through its large foggy windows, La Vasca has the same lively crowd of diners, but a bold new concept. As the name states plainly, Newport is getting something entirely new: small plates and Basque cuisine, perfect for our foursome of friends to share.
Straddling the French and Spanish border, the Basque region is quite diverse, but to me it means wine and pintxos most of all. There, you can waltz into a pintxo bar and tour through a staggering variety of cuisine bite by bite, from tortilla to morcilla. The typical Spanish pintxo bar probably wouldn’t meet health code here, with its toothpick-studded delicacies lined up in the open air. La Vasca is much less casual than what you’ll find in the Basque region, but there’s a finer touch and food made perfectly fresh to order.
Like good pintxos should be, the food here isn’t a matter of courses, so much as a delicious parade stopping by your table as you take your time chatting and drinking wine. The parade kicked off with a couple of extra amuse-bouches, a nice touch when we made such a large order, plated carefully on Japanese soup spoons. The first was a bite of olive, tomato and tuna; familiar, comforting and delicious. The second was mussels and cucumber, which was superbly unexpected. The crisp and bright texture of the cucumber was the perfect match for mussels.
The Scallop Ceviche ($12) was a fine dice of scallops plated right on the shell it came from. The acidity of the lime and the sharpness of the onions combined delightfully with the mild heat of chilis and some crisp frisee. More Newport cocktail party than rowdy Basque bar, four little bite-size pancakes ($14) appeared, topped with creme fraiche and trout roe. Similarly, our Beet-cured Salmon and Crème Fraîche ($11) is a long way from escabeche, but it was a favorite of the whole table. Its flavor was more sashimi and less a salty gravlax.
La Vasca is willing to travel. The Miso-glazed Eggplant ($11) with Napa cabbage is a world away from País Vasco, but with perfectly painted grill marks, a crisp skin full of spark and a perfectly cooked interior, no one cared. Likewise, the Merguez Sausage ($14) so often found in France is a North African recipe, reflective of the Moorish conquest of Europe. With all the lighter seafood we were tasting, this incredibly moist lamb sausage and wild rice was a hearty counterpoint, with honest and simple flavors.
Bacalao Croquetas ($5) are a staple of Spanish cuisine, and these were exemplary; ample, full of fish and delicately breaded. Made with more precision than most, they were instantly familiar. While the Spinach and Mushroom Empanadas ($11) were a little lost in the dizzying array of other brighter flavors, the Huevos Rellenos ($9), which you may know as deviled eggs, found new heights with smoked trout. You simply can’t get more classic than Patatas Bravas ($8). These were just a bit more nuanced than the fried chunks and bright orange sauce you’ll find at your average Spanish bar. Natural colored soffrito aioli met circular roasted potato slices, and the combo worked just as well.
Our dinner companion, Esther, grew up on the sea in Andalucia and said La Vasca’s Grilled Sardines ($14) transported her back to days on the beach and sardines al espeto, where they are salted, skewered and barbecued in the sand. Less the grit of blown sand, she said these sardines “had that feeling.” One of my favorite dishes was the charred Point Judith squid with Romesco sauce ($14). With lots of mixed flavors and perfectly cooked tubes and tentacles, this dish shows why Spanish food makes so much sense with our ingredients, in the right hands.
We finished with an extra palate cleanser: an orange and beet granita. Just a little taste or two, this was sharp, refreshing and adored by everyone at the table. I could have finished here, but I cannot refuse a Gateau Basque ($9). With it’s perfectly browned and hashmarked top, and soft frangipane interior, this tarte would bring in passers-by from the cobblestone streets of Saint Jean Pied-du-Pont. Luckily for us it’s at La Vasca on Thames instead. It may have arrived quietly, but this blend of Basque and local flavors on small sharing plates is as unique and independent as its namesake.
515 Thames Street, Newport