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A friend and I had a hankering for some tapas style Spanish fare one day. We also wanted to push ourselves outside the comfort zone of lingering in and around San Francisco, so we decided to mix it up *a lot* and explore San Jose.

It’s really not that shocking, once you get acclimatized to the concept of the culinary world extending well beyond the 7×7 of San Francisco. No really, there’s a WHOLE world out there …

So armed with a Yelp-enabled smart phone, we picked our tapas restaurant and energetically punched in the address into the gps and set off on our adventure. After some confused circling around and trying not to fall under trams, we finally found an acceptable parking spot and marched onwards to our dinner experience.

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Picasso’s is extremely cute inside. Very lively – with walls bathed in smiley lime greens and vibrant oranges, with splashes and splotches of brick red to ground the la-di-da.

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The light fixtures are cute too – almost squid like in their overall look and feel, in coordinated shades of green, yellow and red. In addition, there is a generous smattering of candles in lean, long candle holders on many walls and corners, casting their quivery glow. Yet, despite all the lighting, the restaurant does feel pretty dark. Specially once the dishes start emerging and you are straining to see, tilting your head at an angle to see if you can catch some quivering glow or the other to decipher exactly what’s been set in front of you.

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To me, there was a subtle underlying elegance bringing all those colors and vibrance together as one. Your tabletop salt and pepper shakers, candle holders and glasses are simple and yet elegant, affording you the comfort of the familiar as a backdrop for you to enjoy the playful menu. That’s what it is – Picasso’s was playful.

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We busied ourselves with the extensive menu, picking and choosing, optimizing, balancing, and just having fun mixing and matching. Interestingly enough, my friend and I both noted how the menu seemed uncharacteristically slim in vegetarian offerings, focusing a lot more on the meats, seafood and poultry. We weren’t necessarily looking for fully vegetarian options, just something where the focus of the composition would be a non-protein item. We did find a few, but not as many as we had anticipated.

We requested that the food be brought out in pairs of tapas so that we could delve into each, taste them, and then move onto the others. This worked out fantastic for us, and also helped slow down the pace of the meal in general. Sure, we were only an hour late to our next stop and may have not had time to catch the movie we had originally intended to, but I’ll attest to a very leisurely and lovely mealtime experience.

First out were the smoked salmon tostadas (Tostada de Salmon Ahumado). Three slices of Catalonian bread, sprinkled with garlic and olive oil, topped with a thick slice of extremely fresh and flavorful tomato, and then piled high with shavings of smoked salmon. I feel like this dish was supposed to have Kalamata olives and Spanish capers, but I can’t remember the olives at all (downside of waiting months to write about the experience).  One thing I have always loved about a dish like this is the textural contrast – the crunch of the toasted bread, bathed in the strong flavors of garlic and olive oil, folded in with the soft “bite” from a firm slice of tomato that can hold its own, and then just elevated beyond description with the buttery envelope of the smoked salmon. The salty tang of the salmon is kind of like the hook that slips in effortlessly into the hook-eye on the other end of the olive oil flavors – just waiting to tie in that biteful into one coherent tale of flavors on your palette.

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We clearly like tomatoes. So our next tapa was the fresh mozzarella dish: Mozzarella di Bufala con Mojo de Cilantro. The bed of tomato and the mild red onion slivers are just flavor bases to hold up the mozzarella center stage. The cilantro and green pepper puree is refreshingly herby, with a strong garlic dominance. The mozzarella itself is so fresh and mild, you can almost taste the churning that went into the process of squeezing out all the whey to form the squishy delight.

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Quick pause as we reflected on the clean, crisp tastes and flavors, and chatted animatedly about how we really should visit Spain sometime. Next came out the warmer tapas – first up was the sautéed scallop tapa (Vieras al Ajillo). Elegantly done up with garlic, parsley, olive oil and a Spanish dry sherry, this was a really strongly flavored dish. Assertive and forward, with not a lot left to interpretation or imagination. No hints, just flavors. Maybe a little lighter hand with the oil could work wonders, but hey, the taste was pretty amazing as is, so it’s hard to complain. Were the scallops seared to perfection, with a crisp, caramelized exterior encasing the soft delicate meat inside? Perhaps not quite as obvious when dunked in this assertive sauce. There definitely was a sear. Nicely done. Perhaps not the very best I have had.

Here’s where we discovered something interesting. The complimentary bread that comes to the table is limited to that one basket – so if you are planning on relying on the bread to help you sop up the magnificent sauces, you better plan ahead or order bread on the side. Nice to know, since its pointless to fill up on the bread while waiting for the dishes to arrive anyway.

20120619-223209.jpgNext up, was the shrimp and mushroom tapa: Champinones Salteados con Gambas a la Catalana. What an earthy treat. Californian mushrooms, shaved and tossed around with shrimps and Spanish paprika, pan-glazed with a Spanish sherry vinegar. There’s a hint of tang, a hint of heat, but both mainly to support the earthy tones from the mushrooms. To me, this dish was a playful take on surf and turf!

20120619-223219.jpgSo you see why I started off by saying that Picasso’s was playful – may not be cutting edge experimental cuisine that redefines your take on flavors, textures and tastes, but definitely some pretty strong representation of their regional culinary heritage, presented with a wink.

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