3 1/2 out of 5 stars
1202 N. Franklin St., Tampa. Appetizers: $6-$16; entrees: $17-$35; desserts: $8-$10;
beer/wine/cocktails: $6-$15. 813-370-1000, moleyabuelatampa.com.
When I first hear Mole Y Abuela, my mind immediately goes to Mexico, where the unique combination of chocolate and chiles comes together in molé, one of the culinary world’s great sauces. Abuela, of course, is the loving Spanish term for grandma. I have no hint that the restaurant’s gastronomic bent is actually Spanish tapas-style.
The former Fly Bar space on the leg of downtown Tampa’s Franklin Street just south of I-275 is the next local venture from celebrity chef Fabio Viviani and his Osteria partners, Nocturnal Hospitality Group founders David Anderson and Lanfranco Pescante. The pleasant interior has three big screens next to a painted wall proclaiming “education is important, but mole is importanter.” It can get noisy inside, but there’s also an impressive video screen projection outside on the wall of the adjacent building for those lovely tables nested amongst the trees.
As we peruse the tapas menu, a pitcher of red sangria arrives promptly in a lovely white ceramic pitcher filled with ice and several chunks of fresh apple that have taken on the dark garnet color of the wine. Each glass is garnished with a thick slice of juicy orange. There are, of course, many variations on the sangria theme. Some have distinct notes of distilled spirits, others veer into fruit punch territory. Mole Y Abuela’s is in the middle of this continuum. Even though the menu mentions triple sec, brandy, and fruit, these are not overly assertive; that said, it serves as a refreshing match for the cuisine.
Our first small plate of tuna crudo tiles pristine pieces of fish in a sherry and grapefruit dressing that’s not too aggressive. It’s nicely balanced by sun-dried tomatoes, slivers of green Spanish olives, pine nuts, and sprinkled with olive oil and micro greens. The oil is full of flavor, but the result diminishes the presence of the tuna.
Pan Con Tomate Y Jamón is a mashup of two tapas favorites. Rustic pieces of Catalonian pan de cristal (glass bread) with a golden, thin, crisp crust are covered with grated, ripe tomatoes. Like the crudo, it’s drizzled with wonderful olive oil, but then draped with a luscious piece of the famous Serrano ham. For me, though, the oil neutralizes the fat of the ham and the combination ends up less than the sum of its parts. If you’re a devotee of Spanish ham, as I am, I’d suggest luxuriating in the ham on its own. Superchef Ferran Adria suggests rubbing the fat on your upper lip to appreciate the product’s special nature. This is a foodstuff to be savored.
The quintet of modest-sized, dark brown lamb and pork meatballs are juicy with moderate seasoning. A sliver of red pepper on each provides a bump of heat. They sit on an oblong, dark ceramic plate atop of two yin-yang sauces. One is a cooling yogurt-chili-mint sauce entwined with a smear of nut-based molé blanco. A sprinkling of cojita cheese snow is a welcome grace note for a lovely starter.
Duck legs “carnitas” features two leg-thigh portions with delightfully crisp skin, served with house-made corn tortillas. As you shred the yummy duck, you can add molé blanco, spiced greens, roasted salsa, and/or dice of pickled peppers to taste.
The huge, tender lamb shank is glazed with traditional molé negro with a complex mix of chocolate and chiles that makes itself known on the finish. The meat is draped with soft red onions, a few crisp red radish slices, and fresh herbs. There’s a scoop of roasted salsa on the side and a grilled lemon half for a pop of fresh acidity should you so desire.
The star of the evening is the ample bowl of guiso de mariscos, which includes tender clams, plump shrimp, mussels, calamari, and chorizo sausage all in a white wine saffron broth with salsa verde. There’s a trio of toasted bread slices for garnish and, more importantly, to soak up every drop of the fragrant broth, which bursts with flavor. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it featured some coconut milk, which is normally identified with Thai cuisine rather than Spanish cuisine. In any case, it’s most satisfying.
Those few quibbles aside, all the appetizers and entrees deliver plenty of flavor. Unfortunately, the desserts each lack an essential element for true success. The Spanish flan is plated with pineapple confit dotted with bits of goat cheese and a sprinkling of sweet paprika. Sadly, what’s lacking is the burnt caramel sauce that makes this stalwart such a seductive treat. Despite the tender custard, without the caramel, it falls flat. I’m not sure where it went, because it should just pour forth upon unmolding, but it is sorely missed.
Torta de tres leches has a lovely cake with a splendid golden crust and tender crumb, but the “sweet milk” that’s supposed to “soak” the sponge cake isn’t nearly enough. It’s just barely moist, which doesn’t deliver the lusciousness demanded to match the dulce du leche, and bits of fresh strawberry.
I don’t mean to be a finicky purist, I just miss the elements I’ve grown to love.
Luckily, there’s a splendid steaming cup of café con leche, which is always a nice way to finish. Here, Mole Y Abuela doesn’t disappoint.
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