Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tio Pepe: Still Great After All These Years

Last Saturday was Mike and Alicia's 11th wedding anniversary.

Along with our friends, Sean and Alison, we helped them celebrate with dinner at Tio Pepe. The Bargers celebrate their anniversary at Tio every year; sometimes they also go in July for Alicia's birthday. This year's trip felt especially timely, though, since Richard Gorelick had just published a love letter to the restaurant in The Sun.

Heyyyyyy, Baked Alaska!
As for Cooper and me, we hadn't been to the restaurant in over five years. There are upsides and downsides to staying away that long. On the downside: Less Tio. But the positives include the excitement of the return visit and an appreciation for just how little changes there, year to year.

On this visit, we got to experience the restaurant not just through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of Sean and Alison, who hadn't ever been there. We weren't sure what they were expecting - it's such an old school experience, which makes it feel familiar, but it's also unusual. When you're used to newer restaurants, visiting a place where the waiters where jackets and where dessert does not come in a mason jar actually feels fresh.

It was raining on Saturday night, which made the walk down the steps to Tio's cozy basement space feel warm and welcoming. During Gorelick's visit, the restaurant wasn't packed; during ours, it was. As he mentions, part of the Tio charm is walking through the would-be diners, tucked into corners and waiting patiently at the bar. The wait is part of the experience.

It's also a great opportunity to people-watch. During our brief wait, Alicia befriended a lovely lady in a dressy red suit. Her looks and her banter would've fit right into a movie from the '40s. Or '80s. It's safe to say, though, that we wouldn't have met somebody like her at dinner at, say, Fork and Wrench.

Enjoyable as it was, we didn't wait long. We had a reservation and Tio is not a place that makes people wait and wait. It's well-run.

Once seated, we got right into the food. To start, we went with our old standbys - shrimp in garlic sauce and the snails in garlic and butter. Garlicky, buttery, obviously. And just like they tasted last time we visited. Nothing changes.

And oh, is there butter. But at Tio, that's standard. Our entrees - several of which aren't on the regular menu (it's an "off the menu" kind of place) - were all, frankly, swimming in sweet butter and, sometimes, cream. My sea bass, lightly breaded and served in a sauce of butter and capers, was one of the lighter things on the table.

Cooper can't resist the suckling pig - it's lovely, though one of the more rustic preparations. Like all the entrees, the serving is enormous. He ate half for breakfast on Sunday morning.

Spanish coffee prep.

Alison, Mike and Alicia went with a trio of buttery, gorgeous seafood dishes. For Alicia, grouper topped with crabmeat and champagne sauce. For Mike, a seafood Wellington - crab, lobster and shrimp in creamy sauce, wrapped in puff pastry. And for Alison, the 303, shrimp, lobster and crab in a rich sherry sauce.

Not exactly light stuff. But all the food has a certain sort of "special occasion" heft to it. It feels grand.

During dinner, it was sangria by the pitcher for the table. The Tio Pepe version is dangerous: Not sweet at all (which I like) but doused with brandy, for an extra hit. If nothing else, it keeps the conversation flowing.

After dinner, we ordered a pine nut roll - de rigeur when you're with Tio newcomers. I remember my mom telling me about the cake - light and fluffy and shockingly orange - after her first visit to the restaurant, with some of my dad's coworkers, nearly 30 years ago. Like the rest of the place, the cake hasn't changed.

During our entrees, we spied something cool at a nearby table. Gorelick correctly describes the service at Tio as "not friendly (a neutral position, the specialty at Tio Pepe)...when the staff cares nothing about you personally but cares deeply about serving you a wonderful meal." One of those stoic waiters was at the helm of a rolling cart - they're pressed into service for all sorts of reasons. On the cart was a mound of something, which he set on fire.

Baked Alaska!

And Spanish coffee enjoyment.
Cooper was enthralled and insisted we order one for the table. He didn't have to twist any arms. None of us had ever tried the dessert, which is not only a mid-century classic, but is also a running joke among my parents and also Cooper and me. "What's for dessert tonight? Baked Alaska?" I've heard those words from my dad and husband more times than I can count. (Trust me, it's funny like an actual joke in real life. On the screen, not so much.)

So Baked Alaska it was. It takes a few minutes to prepare and can be scaled up or down, depending on the number of people ordering. We ordered for two and had more than enough for six (especially after all those buttery sauces). The tableside theatrics were worth the price - there's nothing quite like seeing flames after dinner. But we also enjoyed the dessert itself. It is very sweet, but really very good. There's a reason it's a classic.

Speaking of theatrics, Mike and I also ordered Spanish coffees, Tio's special after dinner drink. It's an intensely boozy coffee - I shared mine - prepared tableside (there's fire involved) and served in a glass with a sugared rim. Like the sangria, the coffee doesn't taste as lethal as it is. It's an excellent way to end the meal.

We also ended our dinner with a visit from a nearby table - a high school friend of Mike and Sean's came over to say hello. Turns out, his father had just retired from Tio, after working there for 44 years (since the beginning).

Forty-four years. In an age when chefs sometimes last only a few months and waiting tables, as a career, is a dying art, hearing about someone who spent his whole career at one restaurant is just lovely. Tio experiences turnover, of course. Some of the faces on the floor are young and obviously new.

But not all of them. It's a place that values experience, tradition.

And that, as much as the layers of butter and the tableside fires, is what keeps people coming back.

 [Photos: Alicia Barger. Also, I should note that Cooper was actually wearing a jacket, to start. The restaurant might have relaxed its dress code, but special occasions deserve nicer outfits. At least, I think they do.]


Anonymous said...

It was such a great night! AKB

strawberriesinparis said...

Oh I just love that place. I need some pine nut roll in my life soon for sure!


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