The creamy yet spicy Jalapeñotini might be just enough to bring you to Carlos Hernández’s restaurant Tinto, formerly his own Meigas, now readapted into the absolutely finest tapas in Connecticut.
Even down to the white triptych plates, Hernández has thoughtfully recreated his own former restaurant. The space is a stunning 4,000-square-feet with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Wall Street in East Norwalk, which is equidistant from northern and southern Connecticut. There is a romantic sense here in a place that has thought a lot about the subtle look of the lights, enhanced by a street lighting glow that adds an urban aura.
Hernández himself, who also owns the hot, hot Solun in Woodbridge, prepares much of the food, or at least oversees it, being a chef himself. There are no infused alcohols but he muddles any specialty drinks. You can taste the fresh difference. Don’t forget to try some of the very dry Spanish wines available, ones with a palate most have probably never tasted.
What’s more is that the price points on all the drinks and beverages make this so affordable, especially for the quality. Tapas are in the comfortable $7 to $9 range. There are daily specials on wine, sangria, mixed drinks, and tapas to ease the wallet’s pain.
Start with the off-the-charts drinks. Oh, please start with them. In a current bar world of ridiculously average $15 martinis that never merit the price, Tinto offers not just the creative Jalapeñotini at $9 but the Minty Cappuccino martini at $7.
And it doesn’t stop there. Behind the classy square bar come more noteworthy cocktails; there are pomegranate caipirinhas at $8 and very fresh homemade sangria at $6, which comes in such a huge wine glass that it might as well be a pitcher. How about a mango mojito? Every Sunday’s happy hour (all day actually) offers $5 margaritas, mojitos, and caipirinhas.
In fact you might want to make two visits to Tinto, one for a drink sampling, the other for dinner.
Now onto the absurdly good food. The beef empanadas are enhanced especially by the roasted garlic guacamole, but the creamy serrano ham croquetas melt warmly over your tongue. You’ll keep stuffing these in your mouth like popcorn.
When the seafood-stuffed artichoke comes out, it looks like a small sculpture of an upside-down flower. Dig in for the lobster in a sherry cream sauce hidden underneath this memorable dish. Hernández uses berries with a port reduction for a baby rack of lamb that falls off the bone like a napkin floating to the ground. Among the vegetarian tapas, the chickpeas and spinach with saffron and shallots are a must. And one of the most delightful dishes mixes disparate beet, orange, avocado, and shrimp, all of which are stacked into a small bite of pure sapor.
What Tinto gives you that other tapas places don’t is an upscale environment without the snobbery. Carlos Hernández will come around to your table and speak to you or make one of your drinks, and he’s an affable gent, always up for a conversation about his food passions.
Coming to America from Guatemala, he found a job in a diner. One day he called his father back home and told him that he was staying. "I took my chances, and achieved the American dream," said Hernández.
When changing from Meigas to Tinto, why tapas? "I looked at different cuisines and just fell in love with the Spanish fare," he adds. "It is healthier, lighter, and fresher and you feel light. Everything we create is light."
During a recent dinner at Tinto, one smiling patron spoke to Hernández for a moment and said, "Norwalk is so lucky to have a place like yours."
Indeed it is.
Another Jalapeñotini, please.
Mark Damon Puckett has written for Saveur and Greenwich Magazine. He is the author of The Reclusives, YOU with The Ill-usives, and The Killer Detective Novelist (October 2012), all available on amazon.com and bn.com. Please visit him at www.markdamonpuckett.com.