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Europa 

Little plates dazzle into dinner.

click to enlarge food48_lede_europa_148.jpg

It's just after 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Inside the honeyed wood interior of Europa Mediterranean Café and Tapas Bar, there is that busy sense of calm that prevails in a restaurant right before chaos sets in. There are only two people at the bar and one two-top seated, but a party of 30 is already downstairs. Through Palladian arches I can see into the kitchen, where the cooks are pacing themselves for the long haul, joking around in the absence of fire-it-out-now pressure, easing into the night's rhythm. The floor staff moves with purpose.

Owner Michelle Williams wipes down the seating chart at the hostess stand while informing the bartender that there are no tables until at least 8 p.m., in the event he has to come out front. Fortunately, my reservationless but flexible party of four is able to sneak into a nonreservable S-curve of a table on the outer edge of the bar area, where we can share tapas, conversation and watch the restaurant take off.

In 1998 Europa introduced the concept of tapas to Richmond, and until Emilio's opened on Broad Street, it had no competition for the niche. For those who still don't know, tapas are, essentially, appetizers: small servings of very flavorful dishes best when ordered in abundance and shared around a table with conversation, sangria and lots of opinions — a little like dim sum absent the green tea and cultural restraint. There are about 30 items on the tapas menu across three major areas: seafood, meat and vegetable. We made a meal out of nine of them.

Topping our list of favorites were the braised duck with wild mushroom and roasted shallot ragout; the nougatlike date fritters wrapped in smoked bacon and fried on a stick; and the white-wine-steamed clams served in a saffron broth with roasted turnips. Surprisingly, it was the flavor of the roasted turnip against the clam and saffron that stole the show. The tapas are nuggets of complexity that strike hard with big flavors. Except for the artichoke misto, they end just as you want more.

On a previous night my two-top in a rush ate from the other side of the menu, sharing an order of mixed paella. Paella is to Spain as risotto is to Italy, as gumbo is to New Orleans — a signature working-class dish based on rice and whatever else you and your neighbors can bring to the party. In this case, clams, chicken, chorizo, lamb sausage, shrimp and fresh tuna in a base of onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, saffron and smoked paprika. The trick in a dish like this, successfully achieved by Chef Greg Haley, is to blend these big broad flavors and hold them in balance.

Though it likely will transition off the menu as winter creeps closer, the butternut squash ravioli topped with confit of duck in a bath of sage cream is a stellar autumn offering, as is the remarkable pumpkin salad with feta and pomegranate seeds.

The one thing Europa is not is authentic Spanish — these aren't grandma's recetas, and the menu presents no language barrier — but it isn't trying to be, so you aren't lured in with the promise of something undeliverable. What it can deliver, and does, is a tasteful, creative menu designed and prepared by people unafraid of flavor.

Back at our S-curve, we finish off our meatballs — lamb, beef, ginger, cumin, almonds, saffron and garlic — and pause to look around. We have been here for a little over an hour. Nearly every seat is now taken, and the place is at capacity, with most tables hosting parties of 6, 10 or more. The conversations are high-energy across generations of diners. The chatter in the kitchen has mostly been replaced by quick, calculated movements and occasional ceiling-high pyrotechnics. The floor staff is focused and glides around the tables in well-worn patterns, moving food out and plates in. Williams alternately buses tables, tends bar, expedites orders and counsels her staff.

It will be like this well into the night. It was like this on a recent Saturday. Oddly, though, a recent Thursday visit was light. Such is the yo-yo life of the restaurant business in the city. But Europa's efficient staff and creative kitchen, not to mention its downstairs dance club, keep it alive and current. S

Europa Mediterranean Café and Tapas Bar {$$$}
1409 E. Cary St.
643-0911
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Bodegas Room: Wednesday-Saturday until 2 a.m.
www.europarichmond.com

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