Occasionally, as a restaurant reviewer, I am just plain stumped. I will enjoy a series of very good meals at an attractive, friendly restaurant&emdash;and marvel that it is virtually empty every time I visit. So empty that the fidgety waiters cast apologetic looks our way and make up for the silence by overly attentive service and chatty monologues about how wonderful the food is. In fact, the lack of patronage can be so puzzling that it tends to dominate the table’s conversation.
Such were my recent experiences at Cervantes, a lovely little eatery in midtown Sacramento. One Thursday evening we were the only diners, and for a subsequent lunch we were alone in the place for about 20 minutes until two other groups wandered in. Already fond of the restaurant, I felt like standing up and hugging the newcomers. A week later, at 6 o’clock on a Saturday evening, we sat once again in an empty restaurant.
Why, I wonder, hasn’t Cervantes been discovered? Convivial and cozy, it offers an interesting amalgamation of Spanish tapas and Italian-inspired dishes. The walls glow deep crimson and intense mustard yellow, splashed with a whimsical mural depicting musical instruments, wine bottles and eating utensils that seem to dance delightedly across the walls. Doorlike windows open out directly onto busy 21st Street, inviting the outdoors inside. Traffic noises, radios and sidewalk conversations are part of the bistro’s ambiance, which is charming and deliciously urban. The tables are draped with plaid tablecloths and adorned with funky faux flower arrangements, the back bar is illuminated by sleek apricot-gold lamps resembling tiny ball gowns, and the shiny, handsome hardwood floors glisten with cleanliness. In short, it’s a darned pretty place to visit.
It’s also a good place to eat. The portions are, without exception, enormous. Flavors lean toward the big and lusty, incorporating ingredients like chorizo, paprika, lime and pimento peppers that enliven and add color to the dishes. The tapas range from asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto and goat-cheese-stuffed peppers to bruschetta marinara. I was crazy for the chewy, flavorful Spanish meatballs, drenched in a creamy white wine sauce and topped with a haphazard scatter of crunchy toasted almonds and greenly refreshing chopped parsley. Another delectable tapa was chicken-and-ham croquettes: Resembling miniature footballs, the dense, crusty mashed-potato ovals are dotted throughout with meat chunks and would probably satisfy two people as a meal. And don’t miss the juicy zucchini fritters, which are coated with a delicate, crispy batter and served with a kicky aioli sauce.
If you’re searching for something good to eat with wine, try the Manchego cheese and chorizo platter, served with small, briny Spanish olives and piles of bread slices. The white, slightly sharp sheep’s milk cheese arrives at room temperature, and the vibrantly colored, ripely flavorful chorizo slices shimmer scrumptiously with fat. I was awed by its size: This small plate would easily serve four to six as an appetizer.
Entres I recommend include the king salmon, blanketed with a sweet cherry-tomato coulis and a dollop of housemade pesto and flanked by pan-roasted paprika potato quarters. The chorizo lasagna, with its slightly spicy punch to the palate and multilayered, hearty cheesiness, is massive and satisfying. The huge mound of paella, a house specialty, is crammed with shellfish, hunks of chicken breast and the ever-present chorizo and punctuated with crisp, sweet carrot rounds. The restaurant also has some first-rate sandwiches at lunchtime: Try the tasty portobello sandwich or the king salmon sandwich, a savory mash of moist fish, capers and cherry tomato halves on a chewy, delicious roll.
The kitchen has a perplexing addiction to an unctuously sweet balsamic glaze, which the cooks squiggle artfully on almost every plate. I ordered the mini pizzas from the tapas menu, only to find that the glaze was absorbed into the pizza crusts, rendering them soggy and overly sweet. Since we’re on the subject of pizza, it may well be the one thing picky kids will eat at Cervantes&emdash;the restaurant does not have a separate children’s menu.
If by some miracle you find yourself hungry for dessert, try the tiramisu. Made with ladyfingers soaked in rum and espresso and layered with a creamy, irresistible mixture of dark chocolate and marzipan, it is the least traditional and most intriguing tiramisu I have ever encountered. However, I was shocked at its $8 price tag. The waiter explained that the dessert is so big it feeds at least two people. I had to laugh&emdash;that’s a modest portion by Cervantes standards. A comforting slab of the kitchen’s warm caramel-apple bread pudding would feed at least three people, yet costs a mere $4.50.
On more than one occasion I experienced awkward, unpolished service at Cervantes, but the waiters were unfailingly cheerful and solicitous. With a little more practice and a lot more customers, they&emdash;and the restaurant&emdash;will get their opportunity to shine.
What You Need To Know: Cervantes is partnered with Club 21, a late-night bar featuring live music, drag shows and comedy acts. After 9 p.m., the restaurant becomes the bar’s lounge, offering a quiet spillover space for Club 21 patrons.
Who To Take: Cervantes’s intimate, warm interior is perfect for romancing your sweetie.
What To Bring: A Paul Bunyan-sized appetite.
Cervantes Tapas and Italian Bistro, 1119 21st St., Sacramento; (916) 441-1662
Hours: Lunch Tuesdayâ€“Friday 11:30 a.m.â€“2:30 p.m., dinner Tuesdayâ€“Saturday 5â€“9:30 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday