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Saffron: Noshing in Howard Beach to a Flamenco beat

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On hot, sticky summer evenings, most people aren’t in the mood for the kind of heavy rib-sticking meal that is so sustaining in the winter months. Grazing on small plates has much more appeal when the mercury climbs. The Spanish practically invented that style of eating when, according to legend, in the 13th century, King Alfonso X of Castile recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered that taverns would not be allowed to serve wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or “tapa.”

Others will counter that the word “tapa” means “lid or cover” in Spanish, and that its derivation relates to the practice of covering a glass of wine or sherry with a slice of ham or bread to keep out fruit flies. Either way, the practice of drinking wine with small plates of savory snacks has endured for our enjoyment.

Saffron Restaurant and Tapas Bar, on Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach, has, for the last two years, embraced this tradition with gusto. Chef/owner Herbert Duarte was born to a Spanish father and a Salvadorian mother in Marbella, Spain. He emigrated here with his family at age 10 and received his culinary education in the United States.

His approach to tapas, while decidedly Spanish, has no patience with culinary orthodoxy. “I want to give my customers what they like,” Duarte assured me. His menu reflects Italian, Central American, and pub grub influences right alongside classic Spanish tapas.

Saffron offers some great deals. There is an all-you-can-eat tapas lunch deal for $12.95/$15 weekdays/weekends. There is a nightly four-course pre fixe for $25 on weekdays that becomes an early bird on the weekend. Our favorite is the tapas for two that includes soup or salad, five tapas, and dessert for $50.

We paired our tapas with a Wildberry Red Sangria, a fruity concoction of mixed berries in cabernet and berry vodka, a compromise since some of our choices called out for white, others red. Not being in our wine connoisseur mode that evening, the sangria made for refreshing fun. The Caesar salad here is first rate, although had they been offering a cold soup we might have been tempted. We moved on to a plate of baked clams and mussels speckled with diced chorizo, a terrific combination.

Steak with salsa verde was one of the more substantial choices on the menu. A sizzling hunk of beef comes on a cast iron platter smothered in the salsa. The sauce is not the tomatillo-based preparation you would expect to find in a Mexican restaurant, but a mild parsley-based salsa traditional in Spain. It comes served with patatas bravas, the chunky fried potatoes favored by Spanish tapas eaters. Queso Fundido has a decisively Mexican flavor. A crock of warm black beans comes topped with Manchego and Cheddar cheeses and a dollop of salsa, and paired with some exceptionally fine house made tortilla chips.

Cheese lovers will be ecstatic over Provoletas, provolone fundidos, meat lovers not so much. A mini-casserole of melted cheese, punctuated with minor amount of meat, comes with crispy grilled toast for dipping. It’s about as cheesy as you can get without calling it fondue. Our only disappointment was the seafood paella, which is offered in a generous tapas sized portion as one of the tapas options. The rice was dry and mealy, and the seafood overcooked. I only hope they do better if paella is ordered as an entrée. A very cinnamon-y bread pudding is a signature dessert here, or try the flan.

The Bottom Line

Summer grazers will do well to get a breath of Howard Beach salt air, refreshing wine, cocktails, or sangria, and an eclectic collection of little noshes at Saffron.

Saffron Restaurant

161-50 Cross Bay Blvd

Howard Beach, NY 11414

Website: www.saffronrestaurantnewyork.com

Price Range: tapas: $8-15 entrees: $18-38; Tapas and prix fixe Specials $25/pp

Cuisine: Eclectic Spanish

Setting: Small, inviting.

Service: Accommodating but unpolished

Hours: Lunch & Dinner Daily

Reservations: Optional, phone or Opentable.com

Alcohol: full bar

Parking: Own lot in rear

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Music: Flamenco performances are held once a month along with a weekly flamenco guitarist.

Takeout: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Noise level: Acceptable.

Handicap accessible: Yes

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