Update 8/22/12: Tapas Rias is closed. Thanks for the info, Justin & Madison Originals.
In a word: The little plates that could.
The specs: #0649
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; Madison Originals profile; reviews at 77 Square 5/31/09 and 9/29/10, Isthmus, OpenTable, The Madison Adventure, Tales from the Crib, Trip Advisor, Yelp, Ruppert Food Blog; Madison Live Journal and TDPF; listing at Eat Drink Madison; official web site (warning: Flash and Spanish guitar),
Latest Tapas Rias news and reviews at del.icio.us
Guy, JM, Nichole and Rebecca ate two rounds of tapas and dessert (11 dishes total) and 3 drinks.
The bill was $82, or $20.50/person, plus tip.
We all gave Tapas Rias an A- (see our grading rubric).
To eat tapas in good company with a notepad under your napkin is one of the most egregious ways to ruin a good time that we can think of. We surrended accuracy and well-framed and -lit photos to give ourselves over to the moment, letting two waves of small plates and a round of sangria wash over us and our two fellow eaters. It was worth it; these tapas earn their salt.
The sangria comes in seven varieties. The "Ibiza" was green and sweet with Midori, while the peach and mango both used actual muddled fruit. There was also bread! That never happens anymore. We were thrilled, moreso later when there were good sauces to daub at.
There are pizzas and entrees at Tapas Rias but we went for all small plates, starting with the plato combinado, a gamer's delight as it varies from evening to evening. This one included meatballs, calamari (more on both of those later), and slices of Spanish ham.
For snacks off the grill, we got mushrooms and squid. The champignons ala plancha were weighty, with red pepper strips in a smoky sauce. In contrast, the calamares ala plancha were refreshingly light and chewable, with a great lime-dressed cucumber salad garnish.
It's lucky we like calamari because we'd doubled up on it by ordering the plato combinado. Not so great was the surfeit of bland albodingas catalanas, which were basically Swedish-style meatballs plus pine nuts. On the bright side, if you have spice-phobic dining companions, it's good to know that there will be something here for them too. Saffron rice accompanied many of the plates to come, and was also rather plain.
The croquetas de pollo, crispy ham and chicken puffs, were festive and darned tasty. A plate of garbanzos con chorizo was smoky and very spicy, with near-caramelized onions and green peppers for sweetness. The pincho de solomillo, picks of beef tenderloin with red & green peppers and onions, were another standout.
For dessert, we could choose from a chocolate "turtlet," pitisu con helado, or tres leches. Guy and Rebecca each asked our server for a slice of tres leches, and through some momentary confusion, it seemed they were only going to get served one. Once they had clarified that they wanted to order two tres leches, JM quipped by way of clarfication that they wanted seis leches. This even made our patient bilingual server giggle momentarily.
Joking aside, the cake was very good.
The pitisu con helado was a puff pastry bowl filled with a scoop of average vanilla ice cream; while pretty, if it hadn't been for the artful combination of raspberry and chocolate sauce, it wouldn't have been worth the splurge.
We braced ourselves for the check, sure it would be a gasper based on our earlier, analogous experiences at Icon and Opus. It wasn't. At just over $20 per person for a feast like this, Tapas Rias is an excellent choice relative to its competition. Its environs leave much to be desired, but once you're in, you're as likely to enjoy the food as any comparable tapas meal for 60 miles in any direction.