Issue 30

Reviewed: Espana

Reviewed: Espana

For Food & Spirits Magazine’s inaugural review we decided to go with a different format than the usual food review. Rather than just one reviewer, we sent five different people, representing different levels of the culinary food chain, to give us their take in a round-table sort of discussion. We did this because, while we also wanted the high-end and very-knowledgeable food consumer to be represented, we wanted the more average or general eater to have a place at the table as well. Our hope is that the different perspectives provide a more-rounded review of the experience while also giving you, the reader, a chance to see what someone who might be similar in their tastes said about their meal.

We notified the restaurant what night would be coming and allowed the restaurant to order the entire meal for the table. Scores were given in various categories on a scale of one to five (with five being the highest). The diners were also asked to identify their favorite (and least favorite) dishes and to tell us a little about themselves and where they are coming from with food. The idea for the review format was from Ron Samuelson at M’s Pub, who described to me an article that the deceased Medium Magazine did that, although it wasn’t about food, was a round-table discussion. I loved the sounds of it and adapted the idea for our review.

I choose Espana for the review because they hadn’t had a lot of press recently and, in my opinion, they deserve it. While living in San Francisco, tapas were one of my favorite meals and I was more than pleasantly surprised to find the authentic, real deal here in Omaha. I’ve been to Espana a number of times over the past couple of years and thought our experience during the review was what can be expected on nearly any visit. So, with all that, here are your reviewers…

 Sarah Benck: Sarah Benck is 23 years old, and was born and raised in Omaha NE. She is a songwriter/ musician, and currently plays in Sarah Benck and the Robbers. Growing up, her annual birthday dinner was her mom’s Swedish meatballs. One of her best dishes to prepare is a spicy spaghetti sauce, with veggies and spicy turkey sausage, stuffed red peppers, and homemade wheat bread. Like sounds in music, there are limitless combinations of flavors to cook with, and she enjoys the creative process. When her music takes her to other cities, her budget is usually minimal, and the diet consists mainly of gas station snacks or fast food (two of her least favorite things). Her recent favorite is in Sheboygan WI, at Jalisco’s. She had the Avocado burrito, stuffed with fresh ingredients and sealed with toasted perfection. Her local favorites are Brother Sebastians, Jaipur, and El Aguila.

David Ahlquist: David Ahlquist has lived in the East, South and West in between stints in his native Omaha. He imagines himself a man of many talents and interests, but currently spends his time working as a computer programmer and watching television. Dining out, he tends towards the familiar – a filet, shrimp or the unadorned sandwich (meat, cheese and bread please.) His favorite food is the philly cheesesteak from Doc’s in Atlanta. David’s brief vegetarian experiment ended when he realized there wasn’t a very exciting menu for someone who dislikes tomatoes, mushrooms and squash. Soups, frozen entrees, almond butter and fruit spread on toast make up the bulk of his diet. He occasionally envisions a lifestyle change involving healthier eating with fresh foods prepared in interesting fashions. These daydreams inevitably end with the spoiled food from his impulsive grocery shopping spree in the garbage and an ever increasing collection of exotic, unopened condiments and spices in the cupboard.

 Brian O’Malley: Brian O’Malley is a chef instructor at Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts. A graduate from New England Culinary Institute and a member of the American Culinary Federation, Brian worked as the chef/owner of Spread. He was a manager/instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, head chef at Vanilia in Santorini, Greece, and BackNine Grille, assistant food and beverage manager at the Champion’s Club, and opening chef at BOJO. Brian can usually be found in MCC’s kitchens, teaching, creating works of culinary genius or debating the perils of out of season tomatoes.

Derek ( Derek was a picky eater as a kid. Oddly, he always liked to cook and fancied himself a chef, but his list of acceptable ingredients was fairly short. Meeting the woman he would marry, and moving to California changed all of that. His wife was a budding foodie when he met her and they explored the nooks and crannies of the food world together. Doing so forced him to learn to appreciate all tastes and textures regardless of his initial impression. He’s gone from a person who dislikes fish so much he wouldn’t even eat a fish stick to a person who thinks there is no better way to eat fish than a gleaming plate of sashimi. Because food for Derek is about experiencing new things, he’s been drawn primarily to fine dining and regional cuisines. Both have great potential for challenging him with dishes he never would have conceived on his own. As for that kid who aspired to be a chef, he’s contentedly abandoned that dream. He still cooks occasionally, though not nearly as often as he’d like – but when he does cook, he cooks with reckless abandon.


Cold Tapas

Aceitunas Alinadas – $3.75 – A variety of Spanish olives marinated at Espana.

Ajo – $3.75 – Pickled garlic cloves.

Almedras en Aceite y Sal de Mar – $4.00 – Marcona almonds roasted, with olive oil and sea salt.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 4.25

Combined Average Flavor Score: 4.375

Combined Average Score: 4.5

These three tapas were served together in colorful, long dish to start the night off.

Selected Comments

Sarah: I really don’t like olives and have tried them many times, always with the same verdict. These olives I could eat – their flavor was unlike any other olive I have ever eaten. Yum!

Derek: Very pretty serving dish and great items, but exactly what one would expect. Could just as easily make at home. There was also no serving dish for the olive pits.

Brian: Need a spent pit/toothpick container. The garlic could also go a little larger or be started fresher. The almonds were out of sight.

Dave: I really liked the oily, salty almonds.


Carpaccio Bistec – $9.25 – Shaved beef tenderloin, grated Manchego cheese, capers, extra virgin olive oil, fresh cracked pepper.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 4.16

Combined Average Flavor Score: 4.83

Combined Average Score: 4.83

The Carpaccio was served on a thin metal plate. The pink meat covered with creamy colored cheese was set off beautifully by the sprinkling of green capers.

Selected Comments

Sarah: Very tender meat, deliciously flavored, very thinly cut. I like the spiciness of the cheese, and the occasional pop of a caper and the way it blends with the other flavors. A little salty.

Derek: Love the bite of the cheese and capers with the grassiness of the olive oil. A bit peppery. This was my favorite dish.

Brian: The beef is very good. Cheese hides the color of the meat. I say shave the cheese instead of grate.


Boquerones en Vinagre – $7.75 – Marinated Spanish white anchovy filets, fresh garlic, parsley, extra virgin olive oil.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 3.75

Combined Average Flavor Score: 3.5

Combined Average Score: 3.5

The anchovies were beautiful white filets, and shiny with olive oil. The green parsley was a nice contrast to the paleness of the dish.

Selected Comments

Derek: Like a pungent tuna sandwich.

Sarah: These were yummy. Not “fishy” tasting at all. Very tart and a little sweet. I was impressed by these!

Dave: Not a fish fan, but I’d eat it again (if someone else ordered it).


Jamon Serrano y Pan con Tomate – $8.50 – Serrano ham, Spanish tomato bread.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 3.125

Combined Average Flavor Score: 3.875

Combined Average Score: 3.625

The Serrano ham and tomato bread looked very rustic and delicious. The meat added a beautiful color to the plate.

Selected Comments

Sarah: I like the density of the bread and the contrast between the crustiness outside and soft inside. The meat and olive oil is so rich in flavor. The meat does not overpower.

Derek: Difficult to eat, dripping with oil. Excess oil = too grassy. Overpowers delicate ham flavors.

Brian: Simple, but best ratio of toppings.

Dave: I like the flavor and texture of the bread — easy to chew and “airy”.


Endivias Valencia – $6.75 – Belgian Endive, Valencia oranges, toasted Marcona almonds, goat cheese, extra virgin olive oil.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 4.5

Combined Average Flavor Score: 3.375

Combined Average Score: 3.625

This dish was almost too pretty to eat. The light Endive leaves cradled the goat cheese and bright oranges, making a great presentation.

Selected Comments

Sarah: I like the contrast of the crunchy lettuce shell with the soft goat cheese. It could have used more orange flavor to contrast the goat cheese. I like the presentation – the color combinations of the orange, tans, green and bright white is very pretty.

Derek: Finishes really nice with the citrus and cheese. Not very balanced with a big endive attack up front.

Brian: The oranges were off. I believe just out of season. It needs a little more sour. The goat cheese is very subtle.


Hot Tapas

Mejillones a la crema de Jerez – &9.75 – Mussels steamed, sherry cream, garlic, fresh leeks.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 3.25

Combined Average Flavor Score: 4

Combined Average Score: 3.75

This dish was gorgeous. The big bowl of mussels looked as delicious as it tasted. The pale cream sauce was a lovely contrast to the black mussels.

Selected Comments

Sarah: These were so amazing. I could have eaten the whole bowl by myself. This was my favorite dish.

Derek: Needed more zing. The bread with the olive oil was great with sauce.

Brian: Sauce good, but it could have been thinner.

Dave: Really tasty cream sauce. I’m reluctant to eat mussels, but I could survive on these and the sauce.


Gambas al Ajillo – $8.75 – Sizzling shrimp, garlic, lemon, white wine, olive oil.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 3.625

Combined Average Flavor Score: 4.125

Combined Average Score: 4.125

This dish was just what it promises. The garlic flavored shrimp was sizzling as it came to the table. This was a fun one, it engaged all the senses.

Selected Comments

Sarah: Tasted good. The lemon butter and garlic was very flavorful.

Derek: Below average shrimp, fishy tasting and overcooked.

Brian: Garlic was slightly browned and bitter. The shrimp was cooked properly and the bread was great soaked in the juice.


Bocaditos de Bacalao – $6.50 – Salted cod cakes, lemon, allioli.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 3.75

Combined Average Flavor Score: 3.375

Combined Average Score: 3.625

The flat cakes were a light caramel color and were set of beautifully by the aioli.

Selected Comments

Sarah: Very tender. Lightly fried and not too crispy. I liked the lemon mayonnaise with it. Not mind blowing or complex, but tasty.

Derek: Where’s the cod? Like a potato pancake, only fluffier. The aiolo was really good..

Dave: Non-fishy fish. Nice texture, mild flavor.


Espinacas Salteadas – $6.75 – Fresh spinach sauteed, olive oil, pine nuts, raisins, white wine.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 2.875

Combined Average Flavor Score: 2.875

Combined Average Score: 2.875

The spinach was a rich green color, although the juice on the plate made it seem soggy before it was even tasted.

Selected Comments

Sarah: Seems very limp and soggy. Not amazing, but I like the raisins. This was my least favorite dish.

Derek: Spinach overcooked and bitter. It was braised, and I don’t like it cooked beyond blanched. My least favorite also.

Brian: Needs salt, and irony tasting. Was it blanched or steamed first? The pine nuts were overdone. Get rid of the juice. This was my least favorite as well.

Dave: I really like the sweetness of the raisins contrasting with the bitterish spinach.


Flamenquines – $7.75 – Pork tenderloin stuffed with Serrano ham, garlic, parsley, ground beef, spicy allioli.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 4.5

Combined Average Flavor Score: 3.625

Combined Average Score: 4.125

This dish looked so delicious. The dark ground beef mixture was a nice color against the ham and pork. It also had a very textural look, which was nice.

Selected Comments

Sarah: Good, but I thought it was fairly dry. The sauce was a good addition, and countered the dryness.

Derek: Dry in parts. Seems more German than Spanish.

Brian: Most unique of the night. The aioli was very nice.

Dave: The first bite was a little dry, but the second bite with the aioli was much better.


Paella a la Tierra (paella of the earth) – $23 per person – Rabbit, chorizo sausage, snails and duck cooked in aromatic saffron rice.

Paella originated in the fields outside Valencia, and eventually became the National Dish of Spain. It was started with rice and saffron and then snails, rabbit, vegetables, sausage, and any number of other ingredients, based on availability, were added. It is cooked in a traditional flat bottom pan, simmering everything over open fire to perfection. Today Paella is cooked with many different meats and seafood throughout Spain.

Combined Average Presentation Score: 4.75

Combined Average Flavor Score: 4.25

Combined Average Score: 4.5

The pan of paella was huge! The pale yellow rice with the big chunks of rabbit, chorizo, snail and duck looked and smelled as delectable as it tasted. We couldn’t wait to dig in.

Selected Comments

Sarah: Delicious, unique combination of flavors. Not necessarily a comfortable enough flavor overall for me to eat everyday, but definitely on occasion. The presentation was beautiful!

Derek: Gritty snails. The duck was really good.

Brian: Saffron was well balanced. This was my favorite dish.

Dave: Filling. I can imagine being really hungry and shoveling it in.


Dessert – Lemon cake, Crema Catalan, Fondue

Combined Average Presentation Score: 3.83

Combined Average Flavor Score: 3.94

Combined Average Score: 3.77

All three desserts were mouthwatering. The Lemon Cake looked as moist and delicious as it tasted. The peach sauce on the pale yellow cake was gorgeous. The Crema Catalan had a beautiful caramelized sugar topping that we couldn’t wait to dig into. The Fondue was a shiny, dark chocolate served with colorful fruit. The variety was great.

Selected Comments

Sarah: Wow! The Crema Catalan was delicious and creamy. Tasty orange flavor that’s not overpowering. The caramelization was crispy and wonderful, not overdone.

Derek: The cream cake was very unique and interesting. The sugar on the brulee was a little too burnt.

Brian: I needed to finish lighter after such a heavy meal.

Dave: Like, like, like.


Final Scores and comments

Service: 3.9

Atmosphere: 4.5

Food: 3.8

Price: 3.6

Overall Experience: 4

Sarah: Overall, I thought the choice and combinations of flavors were wonderful. I thought presentation could have been better, there were really no garnishes. I liked how they made a special effort to choose foods native to Spain, and prepare them in a traditional way. Also, the service was great, my glass was always being refilled, and Bill did a great job of explaining all the dishes. The sangria is so refreshing, and the price was affordable.

Brian: The price is very fair and the overall experience is solid. Just as it should be. A great night, almost forced conviviality.

Dave: I’ve eaten here frequently over the last three years and this experience mirrors most of my experiences. Very good overall. The only things I don’t like are things I wouldn’t like anyway (snails).

Derek: Great to have a tapas place in Omaha. The owner is very knowledgeable and passionate. Love the huge artwork.


Other comments heard at dinner:

Sarah: The sangria is great!

Brian: Is it ok that I referred to hiding the meat with the cheese as “shielding the money shot”?

Derek: Look happy.

Brian: I have to say – one of my favorite things is the olive oil lipstick you get goin. Love it. Good for the beard too.

Food & Spirits: What do you think so far, Dave?

Dave: Mmmmmm.

Sarah: I’m happy with the sangria.

Sarah: I’m glad they’ve kept the sangria coming.

Sarah: The sangria is so good!

Brian: I’m up for doing a little Flamenco show.

Brian: (After much sangria) I’m pretty sure “conviviality” doesn’t have nine “I’s” like I just spelled it.

Erik Totten

Erik Totten

Erik Totten is the founder and publisher of Food & Spirits Magazine in Omaha, Nebraska. He's worked in publications for the last 21 years at all levels. As well as serving as a writer, designer, photographer and editor, he's also founded two publications which have allowed him to grow into being a publisher, which he would describe as his 'true calling'.

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