Friday, April 15, 2011

I've become a fan of the small plate.

If you're like me, and decided to take five years of French in middle school and high school rather than taking the much more practical Spanish, you probably would have had to look up tapas as well.  Thanks to Wikipedia, I now consider myself an expert in all things tapas - from the word origins to the evolution from Spanish cuisine to occasionally behind-the-times Columbia, SC.  Now, I'm sure you're reading this and wondering why in the world anyone would care about the history of tapas.  But see, this is a food blog, and while most of the time I'm pretty good at pretending to know more than I do, this was not one of those cases.  Plus some of the origins were kind of interesting.  For example (thanks Wikipedia!):
Another popular explanation says that the king Alfonso XIII stopped by a famous tavern in Cádiz (Andalusian city) where he ordered a cup of wine. The waiter covered the glass with a slice of cured ham before offering it to the king, to protect the wine from the beach sand, as Cádiz is a windy place. The king, after drinking the wine and eating the tapa, ordered another wine "with the cover."[2]
Sounds to me like King Alfonso XIII just discovered that bar food is an excellent balance to wine.  To that, I have to say, "duh."  Bar food also goes well with beer.  Or $3 martinis.  Especially at Virtu Restaurant & Bar in Columbia.

After a particularly grueling day at work, I was hardly in the mood to go home and try to find something edible in my sparsely populated cabinets.  Instead, I called R, and told him that we were going out for beer and tapas.

We got to Virtu, and snagged a table outside.  It was absolutely gorgeous outside and we had a great vantage point for watching all of the human and vehicular traffic on Devine Street.  Virtu has some fantastic happy hour  (4-7 p.m.) specials: $2 off tapas, $3 martinis, and assorted beer specials.  Not bad at all.  We opted for beer - R had an Alagash White (always a good choice), while I stayed true to my Pennsylvania roots and ordered a Victory Prima Pils.

The entire bottom layer was crab.  Outstanding.
And then came the task of deciding what to order.  Since I had taken a look at the menu earlier in the day, I really had my heart set on the Crab, Avocado, and Tomato stack.  So we got one.  It was wonderful.  Very refreshing, and not to heavy.  Really just perfect for a warm spring day.  And there was so much crab!  Loved it.

Virtu, while primarily a tapas restaurant, also serves salads and has sandwiches for lunch.  Both R and I ordered a salad.  R had the Three Hearts Caesar (hearts of palm, hearts of romaine, and artichoke hearts), while I had the special: a mini taco salad.  R's was was really a Caesar salad with artichokes.  The dressing was tasty and there were probably more artichokes than anything else.  But nothing terribly special.

Just your normal Caesar salad.
My taco salad, however, was outstanding.  First of all, I loved the presentation.  Secondly, there were all kinds of good veggies going on here - mushrooms, carrots, celery, grilled baby corns, grilled chicken, black olives, etc.  And it was served on a plate drizzled with salsa verde that looked like it should really be a spinach dip, strawberry coulis, and a spicy aoli.  And it was served in a crispy taco shell.  It was marvelous.

Definitely a good choice.
Can you see how rich this sauce was?
Now that we'd had an appetizer and a salad, we were ready to move on to the "main course."  We ordered four things off of the hot tapas menu: Lobster Ravioli, Balsamic glazed asparagus, Wasabi sea scallops, and Cuban mojo chicken skewers.

Let's start with the ravioli.  Of the four things we ordered, I thought this was the weakest.  It was served in a Beurre Blanc sauce, which was, as you would expect, incredibly rich and buttery.  But here was the problem. I felt that it kind of overpowered the lobster.  I really needed the lobster to have more flavor on it's own, but it seemed to solely rely on the beurre blanc.  It wasn't bad by any means.  It just wasn't as good as everything else we ordered.

Look at how green that is!
Onto the asparagus.  I have a giant love for most green things, and asparagus is probably close to the top of that list.  Add in some balsamic, and I'm a very happy girl.  This asparagus was cooked perfectly.  It was coated in the balsamic glaze (which, in my opinion, would have benefited from a little garlic), so that the tips of the asparagus were saturated with flavor.  Awesome.

Then it was on to the Wasabi Panko Crusted Sea Scallops.  I don't know about you, but when I see "wasabi" in the name of a dish, I mentally prepare myself for something spicy.  I didn't really need to that for these.  There was certainly a nice spicy kick, especially if you made sure to get some of the sauce on the dish, but it wasn't overwhelming.  Maybe it was because of the bit of cream on top of each scallop.  The panko bread crumbs added a nice textural contrast to the scallops. I loved these, almost as much as the asparagus.  They are definitely on the "top be ordered again" list.

I like the added greens too.  I wonder if they're local?
I wish there had been more of them!
  And like I trusted cliché, I have saved the best for last.  The Cuban Mojo Chicken Skewers.  I would be exceptionally happy if I could get a recipe for these and serve them at every cookout I attend from now until the end of time.  The chicken was grilled to perfection; it easily slid off of each skewer, and cut apart without the need for a knife.  The marinade had the perfect blend and balance of spice.  The best part, was the slightly grilled lime half that accompanied the skewers.  Drizzling the lime juice over the chicken made this the best dish of the night.

After all of this food, we were pretty close to stuffed.  But, once again, I had made the mistake of reading the menu before we went, and I was determined to try the Tres Leches Cake.  Virtu only has three desserts on the menu, and we had a really hard time deciding what to we ordered all three.  The Tres Leches Cake was delicious.  It was a three layer cake the was dipped in milk and then covered in chocolate.  It was so moist and so chocolately.  Definitely a dessert lover's dream come true.

It probably would have been my favorite, if it hadn't been for the cheesecake.
Definitely came with pecans on the side.
R, of course, really wanted the Butter Pecan Creme Brulee.  Not my thing, but I did try it.  The filling was much better than I had expected, but the burnt sugar is really what turns me away from all types of creme brulee.  I simply cannot enjoy a dessert that makes me feel the need to rush to the dentist.  But R was pleased.

Then there was the cheesecake.  It's listed on the menu as having "seasonal toppings." Naturally, I asked our server what was currently in season.  It turned out to be strawberries.  And they really were toppings.  It was a cheesecake (again, round so as to avoid the too much crust issue) topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, and drizzled with a little bit of caramel sauce.  Absolutely outstanding.  I asked our server what other kinds of seasonal toppings they've had.  She said that they were still experimenting since they'd only been open for about a year, but so far they had served s'mores cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake, and they were talking about doing something with melons once it got into the summer.  I'm anxious to try them all.

LOVED the fresh strawberries.
We had a great experience at Virtu.  Our server was very attentive, and she made some good recommendations.  She didn't rush us at all, but was very accommodating considering the fact that I couldn't make up my mind about anything.  She made sure we knew about all of the specials, and really just did a wonderful job of making sure that we had everything we needed.

The restaurant itself is pretty tiny.  We sat outside, but the inside isn't terribly large.  There's a long, dark, polished bar, and a handful of tables.  They had a live jazz band who started around 7 p.m. when we were there.  They were playing inside, but we could hear them from our seat outside as well.  I would definitely recommend that you try it out, especially if you're looking for something a little bit different than your usual fare.

Final Rating

You can find Virtu on Facebook or on the web .

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