Favorite
Location: 5884 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. 412-441-3090.
Hours: Sun.-Fri. 4:30 p.m.-close; Sat. 11:30 a.m.-close
Prices: Tapas $4-12; entrees $18-21
Fare: Authentic tapas
Atmosphere: Cozy, contemporary European bistro
Liquor: Full bar

When she moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago, Angelique sampled the local dining scene and came away hungry for two favorite cuisines. She found curry; she found sushi; Lord knew she found sausage and spaghetti. She even found Vietnamese pho. But she craved an Ethiopian restaurant and a place to sate her appetite for tapas. Happily, among the many dining room doors that have opened in the last year are one to an Ethiopian eatery and several offering tapas. Finally, we were satisfied.

Almost. Not quite. Not, that is, until we went to La Casa.

You see, despite the burgeoning attention to tapas in these parts -- including numerous mainstream restaurants offering "small plates" as a nod to the concept -- we hadn't quite found the tapas place: the one that combines sophistication and comfort, authenticity and simplicity, and all of this with affordability so that we can feel free to go there whenever the mood strikes (and that's likely to be often). Well, now we think we've found it at last, right back where we started.

La Casa is the latest occupant of one of our favorite dining spaces in the city. Over the past five years, this small storefront at the quiet end of Shadyside's Ellsworth Avenue has housed almost as many occupants. La Casa has remodeled the space in modern lines and warm colors to reflect the contemporary European sensibility of chef/owner Omar Mediouini, who has branched out to Shadyside from his Downtown Moroccan bistro, Casablanca.

Now granted, we don't spend as much time dining late in Andalusia as we'd like, but we're pretty sure that we'd have options as alluring as these if we did. We found all the tapas standards -- cheese, olives, chorizo -- augmented by a number of more intriguing, elaborate dishes. Chef Omar often employs an idea or flavor from Asia to add a contemporary touch to the otherwise traditional menu, as in his spring rolls in spicy teriyaki Harissa sauce. Simple Spanish bar food it isn't.

But addictive it is. In true tapas style, each small serving -- most quite reasonably priced -- delivered strong flavors and left us hungry for more. The warm tapas list is much more extensive than the cold, but it suited us well for this time of year.

We started with ensalada de la casa, a warm spinach salad infused with the toasty flavor of pine nuts and studded with bright, sweet currants. Ceviche del mar was a triplet of minced, citrus-cured fish, from soy-soaked tuna to salmon to sweet and mild scallops. With parsley acting more as a dominant ingredient than as an herbal garnish, this was one of the few dishes that failed to impress. However, the sardines in olive oil were outstanding. The grilled whole fish were big and plump, and when Chef Omar stopped by to brag of their freshness, we heartily agreed. We only wished for some crusty bread or toasty crackers to provide a platform for the rich flavors of commingled olive and fish oils.

Fried calamari is a Pittsburgh menu staple, but La Casa spices it up with paprika, garlic and an aioli dipping sauce. Jason found the small rings to be too heavily breaded and the sauce overwhelming, but Angelique, a veteran of too many soggy, tasteless bowls of calamari, thought the crispy breading skillful and enjoyed the bold flavors. We brooked no such disagreement on the shrimp, grilled in their shells and flecked with garlic. Their succulent sweetness provided counterpoint to the oily richness of the sardines.

Taking a break from the sea, we tried tartaletas de la casa, which were like tiny quiches with diced tomatoes and caramelized onions in a firm, creamy cheese custard. We were unable to resist the Spanish delicacy of goat chops, which were tender and abundantly seasoned with thyme. While goat often requires stewing to subdue its gamey boldness, this fine meat shone with a lamb-like treatment.

Finally, we couldn't resist the ultimate tapas, chorizo. In this case, the fairly mild sausage was lightly grilled and accompanied by well-sautéed greens.

Not every dish at La Casa was a revelation, but the joy of tapas is that it doesn't have to be. With so much good food on the table, we could afford to have our favorites and still be supremely satisfied.

Jason:3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars

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