This tapas bar may have moved into a bigger space, but it still manages a packed house
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Nov. 21, 2008
Málaga440 W. Second, 236-8020
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm; Brunch: Saturday-Sunday, noon-4pm; Dinner: Sunday-Wednesday, 5-10pm; Thursday, 5-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 5pm-12mid
When Málaga opened nearly 10 years ago, the restaurant's owners, Alejandro Duran and Greg Schnurr, built upon a trendy concept in dining that was not exactly new but had been little known to Austin – a bar serving a variety of cocktails and reasonably priced wines, paired with small plates of Spanish-inspired comestibles, known as tapas. From a tiny kitchen at the back of its Fourth Street location, Málaga introduced Austin to Spanish classics such as papas bravas – crisp roasted potatoes dusted with paprika and saffron, served with a generous dollop of aioli – and plates fanned with Spanish cheeses, chorizo, and fruit. Since that time, Málaga has become an anchor of the Downtown scene, despite changing tastes and food fashions, as well as more than one busted economic bubble that sent many conventional restaurants into free fall. Málaga's endurance over nearly a decade can be mainly attributed, in my opinion, to two things – a well-priced yet eclectic selection of wines and flavorful, amply portioned, and also reasonably priced tapas. Combine these with a restaurant that is chic and urban, without being overly pretentious, and it's no wonder Málaga has weathered both fair winds and foul.
Málaga's recent move to a larger, more expensive location at the end of Second Street in the peak of a national economic firestorm may be its greatest challenge. Though one might think the move is ill-timed, a visit to the restaurant on Friday or Saturday night is enough to confirm otherwise. The new space is twice the size of the former location, and still it manages to bustle in the evening, though lunches are just catching on. Unlike the former closed and cramped space, the new Málaga has an inviting outdoor patio fronting Second Street, as well as a cavernous interior decorated in warm tones accented in black.
Here, cozily ensconced in a sidewalk seat, eyeing the smartly dressed clientele, and absorbing the groovy rock en español background sounds, you can almost imagine you're in a cafe in Spain – unless you look at your watch. Prime time here starts at the very un-Iberian dining hour of 8pm, though late diners will also be pleased to find the kitchen still going strong until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
With the new space also comes a much larger kitchen. Málaga has always had a reputation for serving authentic tapas, despite the constraints of the previous kitchen. The expanded kitchen has given Executive Chef Duran, who hails from Spain, more freedom to add new dishes and flex his culinary muscle. At the new Málaga, lunch is served seven days a week, and many of the newer items are only served at lunch. These include an expanded selection of tortillas – including one made with tuna – as well as some very tempting Spanish flat breads called cocas. The coca de pato ahumado, a chewy flat bread topped with smoked duck, caramelized onions, figs, and Spanish blue cheese, should not be missed ($10). Soups, salads, and sandwiches are also new. Málaga's clean yellow gazpacho, made from yellow tomatoes and seasoned with oranges, sparkles brightly. We paired it with a grilled sandwich filled with lamb, arugula, sweet onions, and curried mayonnaise ($10), whose surprising sweetness paled next to the gazpacho but which was nonetheless well-executed.
I was hoping that Duran might consider adding paella to the dinner menu, but the dinner format is still exclusively tapas, with some tasty new additions. Do not ignore Málaga's excellent albóndigas (meatballs, $8.50), boldly spiced and bathed in a delicate tomato sauce redolent with cinnamon and peppers. Small roasted red peppers (piquillo peppers) stuffed with Spanish goat cheese surrounded by capers and olive oil, tender garlicky shrimps accented by a satiny homemade aioli ($9), or a soul-sustaining tortilla Catalan made from sliced potatoes, red peppers, chorizo, and egg ($9) are some of the other plates that make a satisfying impression and yet leave the palate with a haunting desire for just one more taste. In fact, there are so many inviting bites on offer at Málaga – from the seared coriander-crusted tuna drizzled with preserved lemon oil ($9) to the crispy cumin laced bites of pork accompanied by a fruity aioli (only $4 at happy hour) – that I recommend going with a large party and ordering as many of the dishes as possible. Tapas, like Chinese dim sum, are meant to be shared by groups. A little bite of this, a small taste of that, the passing, the sharing, and the wine pairing all converge in this singularly convivial form of dining.
Top an evening off with a caramel pine nut flan paired with a glass of Sherry or Málaga's cream-drenched tres leches cake (warning, these are larger than tapas-sized; both $6) with a glass of dessert wine; the glamour of Málaga rarely fails to please.
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