SHERRY HAS ONE of the worst images of any drink. Like an old hippie telling the kids they “ain’t heard nothin’ ’til they’ve heard the Grateful Dead,” I’m always trying to get people to drink it. But it’s a herculean task: those terrifying memories of being force fed a sweet, warm syrup by an aunt at some dreadful family function—no wonder there’s resistance. But sherry is one of the world’s great wines and makes a superb companion to food.
So a new restaurant that’s serious about its sherries is more than welcome. Bar Casa Vale, the latest venture from Nate Tilden (of Clyde Common and Olympia Provisions) is influenced by the pintxo bars of northern Spain. These are often hole-in-the-wall places where office workers bump shoulders with construction workers—but this feels more like a cute date spot or a place for Californian implants to spend their start-up paychecks.
The sherry list isn’t as substantial as the veritable library maintained by Bar Vivant, though I did read that Bar Casa Vale (BCV) intends to have the most extensive sherry list on the West Coast. There are a few dozen options in various bottle sizes, and nine by the glass. I tried the Valdespino Fino ($8), which was beautiful. Light and dry, and luxurious in the mouth with almond and saline flavors, it has a long, long finish. It’s perfect as an aperitif. The server was helpful in steering me towards the Hildago Faraon ($8), a sherry made in the Oloroso style, which is often sweet. This was on the drier side, however, with a salinity balanced by fig and hazelnut notes. It’s delicious, and easy to quaff all night long. Sherry was also featured in the cocktails, which were excellent (except for the ice situation, see below). The Sidra Ponche ($10)—basically brandy, Fino and cider—was bright and refreshing and will come into its own during the summer months.
Amidst this carousing, food is required. BCV is a modern take on pintxo culture, so no toothpicks stuck in the food here, as is traditional. The best dish was the simplest: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota ($20), which is ham derived from acorn-fed, free-range pigs. This was an eyes-rolled-back moment of bliss. Extremely tender, and literally melting in the mouth, the flavor was intense, sweet, and savory—almost not tasting like ham at all. It’s damned expensive, but sparks the kind of somatic experience that makes you feel alive.
Another table pleaser was the smoked game hen ($10)—thanks to spot-on cooking, the meat was moist and had the right shade of crispy skin. A dish of seared halloumi cheese and fermented shallots ($5) was shot through with sweetness and jingled with flavor. The squid ink fideos ($9), while not my favorite, was described by someone at the table as “sexy” and compared to an elevated ramen dish, bursting with heat, umami, butter, and salt.
But then the ho-hum moments: The maitake mushroom rice ($9) was bland and slimy, the skewered pork belly ($5) didn’t show much evidence of being spiced, and the fried smelt ($9), featuring dry fish sitting with raw vegetables, was all sorts of wrong. (The lack of seasoning didn’t help.) The delicata salad ($7) had the opposite problem, with too much going on. The smokiness of the dish coated the mouth, which, rather than being balanced by the sweetness, made the whole thing a disorientating seesaw. (Twenty minutes later, a comment from the table: “Has anyone got that smoke out of their mouth yet? It’s fucking intense.”)
There were also a few personal gripes: annoying glassware that may be “modern,” but was the wrong shape and size; cocktails that were so diluted with ice that you could feed it to a baby by the end of the glass. And this is proper small-plate territory—arrive with a genuine appetite and you’re looking at $40-plus on food alone.
However, think of it as a pintxo bar and it works—a place to get something small to eat with drinks before a meal. I’ll be back to dig into the wine list (a tour of Spanish regions, with the odd French and Greek interloper) and for more sherry recommendations. You should, too. Go on: Get some sherry in your life.
Bar Casa Vale, 5 pm-midnight daily