Small plates of Iberian specialties dominate the menu at this downtown White Plains eatery which formerly housed Trotters.
Creme catalan with caramelized topping is the Spanish version of creme brulee (above).
Peering through bobbing and weaving bodies, we watch as a woman on the other side of the dining room holds what appears to be a glass carafe high above her head and pours an elegant arc of red liquid through the air and into her mouth. There is laughter and clapping as the carafe is passed around the table.
“Tsk tsk,” we say, because we are far too sophisticated to engage in drinking games. “Tsk tsk,” that is, until the waitress brings us an identical carafe, and instructs us on how to get the sparkling rosé from the traditional Portuguese carafe into our mouths. (Warning: drape a napkin bib-style before your first attempt).
The restaurant rotates these carafes among the tables all night long. The carafes, like the large family-style tables that occupy most of the modern brown-and-beige dining room, promote a communal party feel. So does the noise level: by the end of the night, our faces flushed with exertion every time we tried to speak.
Chef and owner Anthony Goncalves may have created just the atmosphere he’d hoped for when he replaced Trotters, his more formal restaurant at this location for the past 10 years. Beyond the décor, seating, and, yes, the carafes of sparkling rosé, Peniche’s tapas menu invites a more relaxed, grazing style of dining.
The menu consists mostly of tapas, with four platos (or entrée-size meals). The idea is to order many of these small plates—though just how many seems to be a matter of varied opinion among the wait staff. Or, order one platos for a
couple of people, and fill in with tapas. The latter approach affords the opportunity to try one of the best dishes on the menu: a meaty skirt steak with a chunky romesco sauce. This untraditional take on the classic puréed sauce made from
peppers and nuts had the bright, robust, and briny flavor one would expect, but the crunchy texture enlivened it further—and offered appealing contrast to the chewy meat.
The menu is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish dishes—although the majority are Spanish, albeit with Portuguese names. Upon arrival at the table, diners are handed a pre-printed checklist of the menu items and a pencil, which facilitates ordering the tongue-twisters and brings to mind sushi restaurants of the ’90s. It also helps to avoid screaming over the din to place one’s order.
While it may be challenging to share conversation at Peniche, sharing food is a fait acompli. While the portion size of the tapas varied, we found six to eight tapas for two people, or eight to 10 plus a platos for four was more than enough.
Tiny squares of salty chorizo, bits of browned garlic, minced cilantro, and acidic young Portuguese white wine draped flavor and color over a heaping bowl of cockles. But the true treasure is discovered after digging the plump little cockle from its shell: a sweet, briny burst of flavor out-stars the seasonings, relegating them to the lesser, though still important, role of supporting cast.
Foie gras was generously portioned and perfectly seared: a thin, crisp caramelized crust encased pink, velvety meat. It was served with a tart-sweet quince marmalade, which paid homage to the restaurant’s Iberian menu while offering a classic sweet counterpart to the heady foie gras.
Most dishes were more characteristic of an Iberian menu than was the foie gras. Patatas bravas, fried diced potato powdered with smoked paprika and draped in a creamy sauce, took the simpler fried potatoes often served as tapas to a new and irresistible level. Cod fritters, another typical dish, lacked flavor and sported a couple of tiny bones. Portuguese sausage flambéed tableside, on the other hand, was intensely flavorful, with plenty of paprika and the dry texture it’s known for.
Two dishes play on the current popularity of sliders. Three tender little burgers of ground beef and chorizo were topped with cabrales (Spanish blue cheese) and spicy ketchup and served on soft miniature hamburger rolls. The strong flavors of chorizo and cabrales dominated and played nicely off each other. Pork sliders, on the other hand, tasted mostly of their onion topping. The pork, which begged for wet, messy sauce, was dry and tough.
A dish described as “sashimi-cut cod” is actually a salad of thinly cut, raw fresh cod (bacalhau Santa Cruz) with black olives, topped with unappealing green herb foam. This dish fell victim to a problem many shared on one of our visits: the kitchen that night was especially heavy handed with the salt. Yet, on another visit, we looked for a salt shaker on the table.
Paella was heavily seasoned, though with an abundance of saffron as well as salt. Rather than rice, the dish was made with nutty, chewy whole-grain faro. The paella didn’t seem to match the menu description: it included plenty of mussels, one scallop, somewhat fishy shrimp, and we couldn’t find any lobster. In addition, it was served with two closed cockles—a sign that the kitchen wasn’t paying close enough attention to the food it sent out.
Desserts fared well. Peniche offers three (plus gelatos and sorbets): we tried them all. Crème catalan, a classic Spanish custard with caramelized topping, is often said to be the predecessor to
finished with whipped cream. It’s as if your favorite chocolate pudding got
its master’s degree at a culinary Ivy League school. Churros, twisted rods of doughnut-like fried dough dusted with sugar and cinnamon, were a bit dry—until they were plunged into the accompanying chocolate sauce.
Three desserts—three winners. The tapas have some catching up to do to make the same kind of batting average. But in the meantime, Peniche is a restaurant to enjoy for its lively, party atmosphere, it’s communal dining, and the experience of grazing. And bear this in mind: if you don’t love a dish, it is no great loss: several more will follow.
peniche â˜…â˜… ½
175 Main St, White Plains
(914) 421-5012; www.penichetapas.com
lunch Mon to Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm;
dinner Mon to Wed 5-11 pm, Thurs to Sat 5- 1 am.
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good