Dining

Review: Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar

July 2010

Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar
(out of 4)
(Food | Service | Ambience )
250 Steele St., Suite 100, 303-975-6514

The Draw Satisfying, creative, and authentic Spanish and Basque dishes served as small, affordable plates that are meant to be shared.

The Drawback The space lacks warmth and charm.

Don't Miss Queso de cabra (goat cheese with strawberry and walnuts); tortilla española (egg and potato omelet); ensalada de langostinos y aguacate (shrimp and avocado salad); rape con salsa de hinojo (monkfish with fennel sauce); albóndigas (meatballs in tomato sauce)

Price $$ (average entrée price $11-$15)

I first experienced tapas the way one should: in the center of Madrid, strolling from one bar to the next, feasting on the specialty of the house at each stop. Deeply flavorful cured ham at the first. Garlicky sautéed mushrooms at the second. Succulent flash-fried shrimp at the third eatery—a small, boisterous space where the floor was covered with crunchy discarded shrimp shells.

Back in the United States, I found many restaurants happy to call themselves tapas bars, but most had only embezzled the term, which, literally translated, means small plates. Few, if any, American tapas bars offered the studied casualness, food-first focus, and authentic Spanish cuisine I first enjoyed years ago in Madrid. Then I discovered Ondo's in Cherry Creek.

Here, as in many tapas bars in Spain, the kitchen is run by a husband-and-wife team. Co-owners and executive chefs Curt and Deicy Steinbecker—she's from Colombia, he's from St. Louis—met at culinary school in San Sebastian, Spain, fell in love, and spent several years cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastian. In other words, they've got serious Spanish food cred—and it's all on display at Ondo's.

The meal begins with a complimentary aperitivo. One night it might be a warm shot glass of creamy lentil soup. Another, an egg salad blended with zingy capers and topped with slender strips of ham. Both pair nicely with Ondo's signature Spanish martini, a glass of golden amontillado sherry mixed with a spritz of Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, and a dash of bitters. Together, the cocktail and starters are intensely satisfying, a characteristic that repeats itself throughout the entire meal.

Although the menu at Ondo's is divided into categories—such as pintxos (tapas served on toasted baguettes), raciones (slightly larger plates), and ensaladas (salads)—these groupings are fairly arbitrary. To fully enjoy the range of flavors, go with several friends, start pointing at the menu, and allow the kitchen to bring dishes as they're ready.

The classic, must-have tapas are the tortilla española, a comforting potato and egg omelet; the jamón Serrano, delicately thin slices of lean, cured ham from Spain; champiñones al ajillo, sautéed mushrooms dripping with garlic butter; and albóndigas, small plump meatballs swathed in a thick tomato sauce.

On the face of it, the food at Ondo's may seem simple and rustic. Instead, the ingredients are entwined like soul mates; each retains its individuality, but the union accomplishes so much more. The ensaladilla rusa, for example, combines tiny cubed carrots and potatoes with conserved tuna (which has been preserved in olive oil) and small, briny green olives bound together with a light mayonnaise. While you can taste each ingredient, the overall impression is one of eating gourmet potato salad. The same approach can be found in the ensalada de langostinos y aguacate, a stacked shrimp and avocado salad served with fresh greens and an herby vinaigrette. You can taste each note, from the bass of avocado in the salad to the treble of tarragon in the vinaigrette. And yet there is a satisfying overall harmony.

The rape con salsa de hinojo arrived with two generous squares of monkfish draped in a creamy, slightly sweet fennel sauce. This opulent sauce made with caramelized fennel, white wine, and cream can stand up to anything France might throw at it. But at Ondo's, it doesn't seem quite so fussy. The same is true with the solomillo con salsa de queso valdeon y piquillos. In this dish, savory slices of medium-rare beef tenderloin are served alongside a velvety, dredge-worthy potato purée blended with a mild Spanish blue cheese. Both are grown-up dishes that pair beautifully with a glass of Ramon Bilboa Gran Reserva, a soft-but-layered Tempranillo blend from Rioja.

I know. I'm gushing. But I can't say enough about this menu. It's food that communicates the Steinbeckers' skill and passion for Spanish cuisine, yet somehow manages to arrive without a whiff of pretension.

The one place where I wish the Steinbeckers had aimed a little higher is in the building itself. In redecorating the subterranean Cherry Creek space, which has been home to a number of restaurants (French 250, Bistro Adde Brewster), the couple went for casual: white plastic chairs, small tables with Formica tops, tomato red and Dijon yellow walls. But the overall effect is one of budget-minded listlessness. Plus, the lights are turned too high. To work around this, eat at the bar, where the dark wood conveys a cozier ambience, or outside by the fountain. Even better, go with a group so your focus is on your table, not the ambience.

Although the decor is disappointing, the service is not. The waitstaff works hard to answer questions and provide suggestions, which is essential, considering the menu lists so many unfamiliar dishes.

The desserts, Deicy Steinbecker's specialty, also compensate for any shortcomings. The playful deconstrucción de piña colada, featuring tiny chunks of pineapple infused with anise and rum, sitting atop an almond tart, and topped with a light, coconut-infused whipped cream, is the perfect evening ender, as is the torrijas caramelizadas, a lightly caramelized bread pudding. This dish is the Audrey Hepburn of bread puddings: It's pretty, petite, unassuming, and in a category all its own.

While the Steinbeckers did make some adjustments to appeal to American diners—unlike in Spain, we tend to make a meal of tapas instead of simply snacking—what they didn't do is dial up the prices. At Ondo's, you won't find anything on the menu more than $12.50, with the average price hovering around $8. This means two people can indulge in a cocktail, several courses, a glass of wine, and dessert, and still get out for less than 100 bucks.

In Denver, we might not be able to stroll from tapas bar to tapas bar like I could in Madrid, but, with Ondo's in town, we don't have to.