Don’t think the small portions at Espana restaurant in St. James means the owner is trying to give you a hint.
Espana is a tapas bar, and since opening seven months ago the restaurant has dished the most authentic Spanish small plates in the area, according to owner Julio Caro.
“In Spain, people don’t eat as much,” Caro said. “But they eat tapas,” smaller portions of often simply prepared foods such a dried sausages, potatoes, cheeses, olives and anchovies.
Caro would know. The restaurateur grew up in Madrid and later managed a bar near the city’s Royal Palace. Then he moved to the United States in 1990, where he spent several years working as a bartender before moving to Long Island in 1998. Most recently, Caro worked in the wine business as a salesman for major distributors such as Empire and Paramount/Eber Brothers.
Starting his own place had long been a goal of his, and when the former St. James Tavern at 655 Middle County Road opened up for lease, Caro jumped on it.
“Tapas is something I know, I grew up with it. Yet all of the tapas bars I know here are not close to Spain, not as authentic,” he said.
Turning the former tavern into a tapas joint was fairly easy. While the original place was drab and dark it was in great shape, he said, including the wooden bar, which only needed a bit of polish.
Caro developed the menu himself and it consists of dishes including Spanish soups, cheeses, chorizo and Serrano ham, shrimp in garlic sauce, empanadillas, potatoes in rémoulade, clams in wine sauce, cod fritters and . Though Caro will tell you that his anchovies are the best around, a taste of Spain that’s hard to find.
The menu includes dishes from across Spain, since Caro said different regions of that European country tend to have their own style of tapas.
“In Spain, whenever you have a drink, they bring you tapas,” he said, and it’s a tradition he keeps at Espana. Sit at the bar, and someone brings you a plate.
Despite Caro’s enthusiasm, business has definitely had its ups and downs since he opened.
“On Long Island, tapas is still very unknown,” he said. “Most people want a big bowl of pasta instead.” To offset that, Caro also serves homemade Paella, which he says they make to order and warns diners that it takes 20 minutes to prepare. Other full-plate entrees are on special nightly.
But his biggest challenge to date was delivered by Tropical Storm Irene.
“Irene killed me,” he said. “I was closed for 3 days, on a weekend, and I lost all of the food.”
Caro holds special events at the restaurant to draw crowds, including a monthly flamenco night featuring live music from a Spanish guitarist as well as a Spanish singer every other Friday. Espana also participated in , offering a $25 prix fixe meal.
Tapas is not as uncommon to the area as Caro may think, though other nearby eateries put their own spin on it. The newly rebranded in St. James, for example, also serves tapas, but its plates vary from Japanese to Tex-Mex in style.
Toast in Port Jefferson also does tapas in an equally eclectic way.
But Caro is shooting for the real thing with Espana, and he’s optimistic despite the usual new business growing pains.
“I have to make it, I have no choice,” he said. “Whoever figured out this business? It’s impossible.”