One of the most prominent corners in downtown South Bend has had a restaurant for a long time. For years, the corner of Michigan and Colfax was home to The Vine.
When it closed, Carol Meehan emailed Tom Welsh and asked if he wanted to come home and try something new there.
Welsh worked overseas for years doing “remote site facilities management contracting.” That means he’d arrange food, laundry and housekeeping services for workers in remote locations such as mines or oil rigs.
He was ready to come back to South Bend after 28 years away and moved back to start a Mediterranean restaurant with Carol and her husband, Terry. His sister, Peggy Swihart retired from health care management and was working at LaSalle Grill. Soon they had a team, and work began.
It took longer than expected to get open, but in November, Tapastrie started serving tapas, or small plates, of food originating from the countries ringing the Mediterranean. Tapas is often Spanish and there are some Spanish items on the menu, but there’s also Greek, Italian and even Lebanese. (Yep. It’s on the Mediterranean too.)
After a few soft opening events, the restaurant opened to the public on Nov. 16 and was immediately busy. The dining room has often been full for dinner and it’s become a hip place quickly. “People really seem to like the concept and the quality of the food,” said Welsh.
- RELATED: Tapastrie brings small plate dining to South Bend, Nov. 17, 2015
Local bartending veteran Wally Ruston is offering classic and house cocktails, but there are 129 wines on the list Welsh has curated. A number of them are in an Enomatic machine, which is as exciting as it sounds. You put in a card that keeps track of of what you buy and can get pours of two, four or six ounces. It’s a way of trying higher-end wines, but not having to commit. “People would normally have to buy a bottle to taste,” said Welsh. A third of people using the Italian machines are getting flights.
In the kitchen, chefs Tony Nafrady and John Bulger, also veterans, are overseeing a team and produce a lot of small plates quickly. After ordering from a server, the food generally arrives quickly, delivered by runners. The server checks back in and asks if everything is all right and another round of ordering is needed.
“It’s all for sharing,” Welsh said of the menu and concept.
It’s all coming along nicely, but like a young wine, this young restaurant is good but doesn’t yet hit all the right notes.
As happens in other places, there can be big gaps between server visits, particularly at the end of the meal.
At a restaurant geared to sharing, we ordered just one dessert for a table of four and then waited until we could get someone’s attention and tell them we only had one spoon.
- RELATED: Tapastrie, South Bend’s new wine and tapas restaurant run by Fiddler’s Hearth’s owners, will soon open downtown, March 28, 2015
The biggest issue with Tapastrie is that some of the dishes are flat. When you’re paying $6 to $14 for a small plate, you can move on to the next dish, but it adds up. The Melitzanosalata, a Greek eggplant salad, had far too little seasoning. The texture of the hummus was spot on, but again needed a dose of lemon juice and salt. If all the dishes followed the lead of the sushito peppers, slightly charred and then hit with Hawaiian black salt, the menu will fall into line quickly. Diners will figure out their favorites and the strong kitchen staff will keep improving dishes. It’s part of the process.
The lamb kebabs are the most flavorful of the four options and the chicken can suffer from the seasoning issue. The chorizo-wrapped dates ($8 for four) are like pork candy. The orange flan at dessert is a different take on the dish and is fifth on the best-seller list at the restaurant, Welsh said. The olive oil cake doesn’t have much flavor, by comparison. The gingersnaps that come with the terrine of quince jelly and house-made ricotta are gold and the terrine is fun.
The grilled halloumi ($12), a Greek cheese, becomes a bit rubbery as it cools. Yet the Romanesco sauce with the albondigas ($9.50) — lamb meatballs — is spicy without being hot and burst with flavor. The fried calamari was nicely done and the shrimp cooked in olive oil with garlic ($14) had good texture, but the resulting oil was cleared from the plate with pieces of bread because I didn’t want to waste any of it.
- RELATED: Tiedemann on Wines: Tapastrie is open in South Bend, Nov. 20, 2015
Many tapas places adjust the number of portions on a tapas plate based on the number of people at the table. If you have one more person than the usual portion, the restaurant adjusts to add one. Tapastrie doesn’t and that’s well and good, but the biggest question as you look at the menu is portioning. So just know that most dishes will have four or six portions and go from there.
Like pad Thai at a Thai restaurant or the red sauce at an Italian place, paella at a Mediterranean eatery will become a measure of a place. At Tapastrie, there’s a vegan version but also an authentic one with shrimp, chorizo, chicken and mussels. It’s selling well and it’s very good. The rice and saffron are right. The meats are done well. The portioning is done for two to three people for $16 or four to five people for $32. If you want it, order it at the beginning of the meal because it takes some time to prepare.
Lunch will cost you $10 to $15 depending what you do and dinner just depends on how hungry you are and how much you visit the Enomatic, but expect to pay about $40 to $50 a person.
Tapastrie is off to a strong start and will likely only get better. The wine program, the range of dishes, the atmosphere all make it worth a visit and a likely success story in downtown South Bend.