Earlier this year, on a trip to Lowe’s, Downtown’s favorite (and only) grocery store, I saw that the shuttered video store and former home of the Box Performance Space at Lomas and 11th Street was under construction. Now, months later, the props and stage have been replaced with a compelling tale of Spain, complete with fragrant paella, an impressive assortment of tapas and even the delectable sounds of flamenco guitar.This vivid production is brought to you by the Cellar Spanish Cuisine, a new Iberian-themed restaurant from first time restaurateur Gabriel Holguin. Now, rich colors and rustic materials create a quaint industrial atmosphere (much like the Castilian casas of yore). The silver tile that encloses the open kitchen and bar add an especially piquant touch. Varying sizes of wood-topped tables seat about 40 in a cozy space.The Cellar offers lunch or dinner, but dinner offers a fuller menu. Dinner features tapas—hot or cold—entrées, soups, salads and sandwiches. The standouts belonged to the tapas menu, and with many to choose from, it might be wise to craft a meal just using the small plates. The espárragos (asparagus) were plump and green, roasted and spiced with a deft hand. The accompanying goat cheese and roasted red pepper added welcome richness.Along with the quickly vanishing asparagus, came the atun y salmón crudo (raw tuna and salmon). Prior to the Cellar visit, my raw fish proficiency went as deep as the California roll from the nearby Lowe’s. I eyed the pink slips of atun y salmon and thought them quite pretty, like dabs of paint on a Picasso canvas. I hated to destroy art, but took some tuna and dipped it into a pool of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The tender fish was light and more delicately briny than expected. In fact, I went back for more, this time with some nicely salted Spanish onion confit.The third and final tapas also arrived from the sea, but in a different guise: the shell. The almejas (clams) nestled together in their cast iron pot, generously soaking up the butter and garlic broth. Though a tad small, the mollusks were luscious and chewy. Quickly replenished bread helped to lap up the rest of the aromatic mussel broth.Though a bit stuffed and spoiled by the tapas, my companions and I turned to the rest of the meal. Salads came next, and after the creative seasoning and pairings of our small plates, wilted in comparison. The tomate a la parrilla con jamón (Spanish ham and roasted tomato salad) provided a nice excuse to eat the extolled pork of Spain, but otherwise offered commonplace notes. The arugula and cucumber provided a nice crunch in my ensalada del cordero (lamb salad), but the meat lay shockingly unseasoned on top. I wished to myself that there was more of the included goat cheese and as if reading my mind, the server produced a small hill of it on the table. This gesture was indicative of the service throughout the night—accommodating, quick and kind.The gazpacho was a salty highlight after the salad, and the cool bite of tomato, cucumber and onion readied me for the final composition. In a pan as big as both my heads, if I had two heads, the paella was embellished with roasted vegetables, shrimp and mussels. The bed of saffron rice clumped together agreeably and absorbed the flavors of the proteins and produce on top. Some say the key to good paella is the balance of aromatic rice, the main attraction, and the supporting star that is the meats and veggies. The Cellar does an admirable job of letting the rice do its mouthwatering work. For those with eyes that are smaller than their stomachs, paella also comes in a single, one head-sized serving.Through all the tempting courses at the Cellar, patrons can imbibe New Mexican beers from the likes of Marble, Tractor and Bosque Breweries or choose from an extensive wine list. Dessert is also available should you have the room and resolve.But if you can’t fit in that caramel soaked flan or fruity sangria, I strongly recommend coming back for a sequel. The Cellar is a welcome Downtown production not to be missed.
The Cellar1025 Lomas NW242-3117thecellartapas.com Hours : 11am to 9:30pm, Tuesday through SaturdayClosed Sundays and Mondays Vibe : Iberian epic The Alibi recommends: Atun y salmón crudo, almejas, and dinner off the tapas menu