Aioli Bodega Española, Davis

University towns are known for their vibrancy: An international student body often results in a colorful, diverse community, harboring a multicultural array of eateries. Within the small burg of Davis, you can find Nepalese, Korean, Vietnamese, Czech and Austrian cuisine, in addition to the more mainstream Mexican, Greek, Chinese and Italian. This gastronomic mosh pit was further enlivened in February, when the owners of Sacramento’s Aioli Bodega Española added a second site in the space formerly occupied by longtime resident Cafe California.

The space’s transformation is stunning&emdash;it’s hard to believe Cafe California ever existed when you walk through the front door of Aioli. You have the sense of entering a cave: The restaurant’s walls are a soft burnt orange, the ceiling a deep, dark plum; ethereal, gauzy drapes adorn the room’s corners, and the concrete floors are painted in muted earth tones. The only windows are at the entrance, giving the space an enclosed, almost muffled feeling. The dining area is bisected by a dark purple upholstered booth, above which dangles a line of whimsical copper wire-wrapped wine glasses, a distinctive design feature imported from the Sacramento location. The walls are splashed with color from paintings by local artists, and the dimpled copper bar adds a soft, rich glow.

The tables, covered in burlap and topped with rough brown paper, beautifully set the stage for chef Abby Iratene’s lusty, rustic, textured food. Both Aiolis share the same menu, which is dominated by a large selection of tapas, Spanish small plates traditionally designed to be consumed with a glass of sherry or wine in Spanish bars. There are about 30 from which to choose, and it takes some time to wade through the selection, which is varied and interesting. Cold tapas range from a tiny plate of cured olives to boquerones en vinaigre, cured anchovies in olive oil and vinegar, and salpicon de pulpo, octopus with potatoes and roasted bell peppers; hot tapas include merquez a la flamenca, grilled lamb sausage, and salmon alcaparado, chunks of salmon in white wine sauce with mustard and capers. It’s fun to visit Aioli with a large group of people so you can enjoy the range of flavors and combinations available.

I sampled albondigas todo ajo, a favorite tapa from the Sacramento location, and was pleased to discover it was just as delicious in the new location. The hand-formed, springy beef meatballs swam in a bright, garlicky tomato sauce punctuated with just-tender garbanzo beans; an egg had been cracked into the hot sauce just prior to serving. The flavors were simple, clean and in perfect harmony, and it was a pleasure to scoop it all up with a slice of warm bread. Another recommended tapa is judias blancas con atun fresco, a plate of toothsome, room-temperature white beans, tossed in a sherry vinaigrette with nuggets of black olive, diced red onion and chunks of seared, raw-in-the-middle tuna. Again, the honesty, freshness and simplicity of the dish’s ingredients constitute its appeal. Other tapas not to miss are the ravishing puerco castilla, a sweet ministew of tender pork braised with raisins and pearl onions; and the vivid calamares el gitano, chewy strips of squid in a spicy, bold tomato sauce chock-full of cilantro, garlic and fresh mint.

It’s easy to forget that the restaurant offers, in addition to tapas, a handsome selection of large plates. The Sacramento Aioli’s signature entre is its stunning paella valenciana, a crusty, enormous, triumphant jumble of saffron rice, a raft of seafood, hunks of chicken and tiny fingers of pork sparerib, served up in a sizzlingly hot pan. The paella coming out of the Davis kitchen is as exciting and satisfying&emdash;and takes just as long to prepare. If you know you want it (it serves two), order it the moment you sit down&emdash;it takes 30 to 40 minutes to cook.

The paella, unfortunately, is not available at lunch. Instead, there is a small but attractive list of sandwiches, all wrapped in the restaurant’s coca bread, which originates, the menu says, from the Spanish island of Mallorca, but which looks and tastes like a flour tortilla. I’m partial to the hefty roasted leg of lamb sandwich, slathered with eggplant pure and tomato confit and served with a beautifully fresh salad of mixed greens topped with shoestring potatoes.

Dinner entres to try are bisteca costeña, a grilled prime rib-eye steak for two, and pato al porto y aceitunas, a mahogany-brown, glazed duck half atop an intriguingly exotic Port wine cinnamon sauce. The night I ordered the dish, it came accompanied by an aromatic mound of garlic-laden sauted spinach whose refreshing flavor was a nice complement to the richness of the duck.

One menu item that fell flat during several visits was bourek de casa, a fist-sized pastry purse with your choice of filling (meat, fish, vegetable or cheese). Both boureks I sampled had gummy, undercooked pastry, and the ground beef version was unabashedly dull, with a small amount of very dry meat tucked inside. And, sadly, the three desserts I sampled were all underwhelming at best: Pastel de almendras (almond cake) tasted stale, lacked a perceptible almond flavor and was smothered in overly beaten, unctuous whipped cream; el borracho sponge cake (imbibed, the menu noted, with Malaga wine) was unappealingly drenched in wine and buried under so much fruit it was hard to locate; and sopa de chocolate was three hard, cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles plunked into a pool of the thickest, gooiest crème anglaise I have ever encountered.

Aioli’s intriguing wine list offers a wide range of selections from Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, Italy and California. If you find yourself flummoxed by the unfamiliar labels, ask for a recommendation&emdash;our waiters did a fine job of suggesting wines that worked well with our meals.

With its interesting, well-prepared food and likeable service staff, Aioli is a dynamic new addition to Davis’ international restaurant landscape.     

-What Makes It Special:

Where else in Davis can you nibble on salpicon de pulpo while sipping a glass of Catalan Muscat wine?

-What To Order:

From cured anchovies and sauted shark to baby chorizo sausage cooked in beer, tapas are the stars here.

-When To Go:

Visit in the evening with an adventurous pack of hungry friends.

Aioli Bodega Española: 808 Second St., Davis; (530) 757-2766
Hours: Lunch Monday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.;
Dinner Sunday–Thursday 5–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5–11 p.m.
Prices: $$$

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