The Review / Aro Bar de Tapas
All photos by kc kratt
Aro Bar de Tapas
5415 Sheridan Drive, Williamsville
The random course of history has largely kept the cuisine of Spain unknown to most of North America. Unlike the nineteenth and early twentieth century waves of Italian, Polish, German, and Chinese immigrants (and their foods), or the newer waves of Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, and Burmese migrants, the last time Spaniards came here in large numbers seems to be not long after Columbus and mostly below the Rio Grande. Nor has Spanish cuisine benefited from the global accolades and general esteem French food has received. Finally, it seems the world is coming around to the magic of the Iberian peninsula. And one pair of local chefs is making that magic at Aro Bar de Tapas, a little island of Spain on the outskirts of Williamsville.
Modern dining menus have been trending toward smaller plates for some time, because they allow both chefs and diners to be more varied and adventurous. Tapas is often used as a catch-all term for small, shareable plates, but true tapas are a uniquely Spanish endeavor. Translating into “lid” or “cover,” it’s not certain whether the name was assigned by the Spaniards who placed plates of food or slices of ham over their sherry to keep out nuisance fruit flies or unscrupulous bar owners who used salty snacks to mask inferior wine. The moral is true tapas are meant to be enjoyed with copious drinks and lively conversation.
Lomo de Buey con Romesco–grilled hanger steak, romesco sauce, garlic scapes, marrow butter; Timmy Fell Down the Well Gintonic
The Spaniards are expert imbibers and the drink menu at Aro certainly reflects this. The wine list showcases sparkling wine from Spain and plenty of full-bodied reds featuring Spain’s key varietal: tempranillo, primarily from the Rioja region. Locavores can enjoy a few selections from the Finger Lake’s esteemed Red Newt winery.
But where things get interesting is Aro’s exploration into Spain’s fascination with sherries and vermouths. Both are common styles of fortified wines with lackluster reputations, but, when made with craft and care, they can be exceptional. Spanish sherries are typically fortified with a distilled spirit after the sugar in the grapes is fully fermented, leaving little to no residual sweetness and exceptional dryness. Sherries are aged in oak, and, depending on the style, allowed to oxidize, producing a tawny elixir, evoking notes of dried fruits like prunes and raisins. Aro’s bar staff range a bit in their ready knowledge of the available sherries, but there will certainly be someone there who can help the uninitiated navigate the list. Flights of smaller tasting portions are also available, and often provide samples of premium bottles that aren’t available by the glass. For the adventurous, Valdespino Fino Inocente, from one of the oldest traditional producers, is straw colored and dry, with mineral notes and pleasant brininess. Also from Valdepino, Tio Diego Amantillado is an amber-colored sherry with balanced sweetness that brings out the dried fruit flavors and is probably the best of the bunch for those new to this style.
Spanish vermouth is similar but adds another layer of aromatic herbs, roots, and bark—and often a bit of sugar after the fortification. Aro follows the Spanish tradition of tomar un vermut, serving vermouth on the rocks with a twist of lemon peel for a casual aperitif. Vermouth is also available in flights, and the list includes an exceptional Yzaguirre 1884 Reserva, crafted from old growth vines and aged in oak barrels through a long and exacting process, overturning the notion that vermouth is merely meant to be splashed in a Manhattan. Aro also offers an impressive range of gin and tonics—or, as Spaniards call them, gin tonics—served with a bit of dry ice to add drama. There’s a fairly long list that constantly changes, so be prepared to sort through the many combinations to find what pleases your palate.
Ensalada Rusa–seared yellowfin tuna, fingerling potato, English pea puree, aioli, carrot, lemon; this page: Burrata Toast–Maplebrook Farm burrata, grilled ciabatta, mojo verde
Chef Scott Kollig curates the tapas menu with an expertise likely developed during his time working under Washington, DC-based chef/restaurateur José Andrés. Spanish-born Andrés was a key force in popularizing Spanish tapas in the US and it might be hard to find a more appropriate mentor. Chef Kollig presents the classics with technical precision and understated presentation. Wedges of tortilla española are flan-like, with coins of potatoes suspended in egg uniformly browned and glossed with a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of coarse salt and chive. Croquetas, four to an order, are left spilling out of a small box (evoking his mentor’s love of whimsy) and consist of panko-crusted bechamel, studded with bits of savory ham. Spain’s version of the French fry, patatas bravas, are well browned wedges of potatoes draped in alioli and dusted with a bit of smoked paprika. Pimientos de Padrón are nicely blistered, dressed with oil and salt, and despite the saying unos pican y otros no (Padron peppers, some are hot and some are not), we found our bowl to be entirely bearable. The boqureons, the whiter, milder cousin to the anchovy, shines paired with a celery salad on top of a crostini. Grilled baby octopus (pulpo a la plancha) clings to a canoe bone of marrow, resulting in an unexpected, yet delicious combination. There is also a nice selection of world-class hams and cheeses, imported from Spain, that can be ordered individually or in boards of three.
Chef Kollig’s wife and kitchen partner, Chef Monica Kollig, is an expert pastry chef and her work with desserts nicely compliments the savory end of the menu. Her desserts are spectacular creations, incorporating fresh flowers and gold leaf as garnishes. In a nod to local tradition, she deftly uses shards of sponge candy on the outside of a quenelle of chocolate mousse creating an inverted version of the local sweet, and cleverly dubs it the ojo de bufalo (eye of the buffalo).
Hamburguesa de Hangover–local beef, pimento cheese, harissa, fried egg on a Tom Cat bun
Over several visits, we noticed that the list of tapas changes at a brisk pace, as favorites come and go (photos here represent a snapshot of tapas), but throughout our experiences, we were never disappointed. Service suffers a bit due to the nature of the menu, and we found it best to only order two to three tapas at a time, in order to control the pace of the meal. Aro is a long-sought addition to WNY’s restaurant scene, and it delivers.
Jeff Biesinger is Spree's fine dining reviewer.