Longtime Dallas restaurateur Alberto Lombardi is taking over the Knox-Henderson neighborhood, one European café at a time. First there was Taverna, the cozy Italian restaurant and risotteria, which still has a loyal following. Then there was Toulouse, with its prime people-watching and Paris-style patio, where plenty of patrons still love to eat cuisine this magazine dubbed “Highland Park French.” Well, Lombardi has done it again, this time with Sangria Tapas y Bar, which, to steal a line from ourselves, is most definitely Highland Park Spanish.
The details were attended to. Ron Guest designed an interior that would make any Spaniard proud, with traditional wood beams, wrought-iron chandeliers, and hand-painted Spanish ceramic tiles adorning the walls. And let’s not forget the too-close-together tables that are a hallmark of casual European dining. Hanging in the open kitchen are chorizo and sausages, another reminder that this is a Spanish joint.
This trio of neighborhood cafes marks a turn in Lombardi’s 30-year career. Gone are the days of the upscale dining establishment—the big and beautiful Lombardi Mare comes to mind—because, the Italian says, “People like to go out in a more casual atmosphere than get dressed and go to a fancy restaurant. People don’t like big restaurants anymore. With 50 or 60 people, the place is packed and full of energy.”
Full of energy, indeed. Both nights we dined, we waited for a seat and had to endure sipping our sangria standing up while skillful servers weaved in and out of the throngs of diners hugging the bar. The many times we’ve driven down Cole, the tables on the sidewalk patio are always full, and we can see through to the restaurant inside, where more revelers are, well, reveling.
There’s absolutely something to be said for a restaurant’s “vibe.” Sangria is lively. It’s happening. And, hey, Spain is cool. Because Lombardi is the man behind the concept, people know what to expect. There’s a comfort in familiarity, and even though the flavors are from a different part of the world, there’s undeniable similarities between Toulouse, Taverna, and Sangria. For Sunday brunch, you’ll get the same mimosa at Toulouse and Taverna (heavy on the champagne); you’ll recognize the patio seating at Sangria because the tables and chairs are the same at Toulouse. It’s almost like a chain—with a twist.
With all of the energy put into the place, you’d think the food would be spot-on. Instead, it hits the spot only occasionally. Among the things we loved were succulent lamb kabobs, round and cute and scrumptious. Also fantastic were crispy green asparagus, slick with oil and topped with earthy oyster mushrooms. If vegetables were always prepared this well, we might consider becoming a vegetarian. Among the three sangrias, the sparkling version, with a hint of vanilla and raspberry, was the most memorable.
Failing to impress were empanadas that arrived looking more like egg rolls, stuffed with sweet rock shrimp, spinach, raisins, and pine nuts and served with a mysteriously sweet and runny dipping sauce that was supposed to be cucumber and yogurt. What we thought was Middle Eastern inspiration was actually derived from Moorish Spain. But, according to Lombardi, restaurants in Spain are doing tapas with global influences. Another miss: the sliced pears atop a bed of pepper arugula and sliced roasted beets tossed with almonds and Cabrales were far too firm, so the salad missed that hint of sweetness it sorely needed.
The trick is to watch how you order. Go straight Spanish: fried Spanish peppers seasoned with fleur de sel; flat bread with anchovies, onions, olives, red peppers, and Manchego; paella. Then order one of the nine Spanish whites by the glass and you’ll be happy. Mix it up too much and your taste buds could reel.
Lombardi is happy with his neighborhood empire, and he has taken his Taverna concept on the road to Fort Worth and Austin. But he loves all types of food, and he loves to travel, so one can only assume that another European café is in his future. As a Greek girl, I’m pulling for Greek, even if it’s Highland Park Greek.
Get information on Sangria.