Restaurant review: A three-star review of Taberna del Alabardero, a Spanish restaurant in Seattle's Belltown with a relaxed European elegance, where classic Spanish cuisine includes paella, roast suckling pig or veal cheeks. Reviewed by Providence Cicero.

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Last fall new tenants moved into Belltown’s landmark Austin Bell Building. They’ve hung fancy caps on the wall and draped fringed shawls and silk tassels over the etched-glass partitions. They’ve moved in ceramic pots and palm trees and painted the walls saffron yellow to match the waiters’ uniforms. In Moorish script the sign outside reads: Taberna del Alabardero.

With its arched windows and soaring, coffered ceilings, this 19th-century building has the right bone structure for a Spanish restaurant, though it is not nearly as old as the one occupied by the original Taberna, founded 35 years ago in a 16th-century town house outside the palace gates in Madrid (hence the name meaning Tavern at the Palace Gate).

The parent company, Grupo Lezama, operates hotels and restaurants throughout Spain, including three Tabernas. There is only one other U.S. branch, which opened 20 years ago in Washington, D.C.

Why Seattle, and why now?

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They looked at several large markets and the process took a while, said manager Inigo Oyarzabal over the phone. “Seattle is beautiful, cosmopolitan, with a great restaurant scene, and people who are open-minded to new things.” This is their most casual Taberna, he added, in deference to our city’s notoriously relaxed style, “but people still find us a little formal.”

Maybe it’s the cadre of handsome Spaniards in suits who keep a watchful eye on service and carve slices of Serrano and Iberico jamón from impressive haunches on display near the bar. The entire staff has an almost courtly manner. But congeniality comes readily to the surface, just as gifts come readily to the table: a bowl of marinated olives, peppers and pearl onions in the bar; a pair of stuffed fried mussels before dinner; dainty cookies on a tiered silver caddy after.

Whether you come for tapas or a multicourse feast, you’ll find executive chef José Maria Larrosa excels at classic Spanish cuisine. Appetizer and entree portions are abundant. Ordering family-style and sharing is encouraged.

Paellas are specifically designed for two or more. The four variations include traditional Paella Valenciana, made with morsels of rabbit in the sunny yellow rice and mussels and clams arranged on top. It’s marvelously subtle with a hint of smoky pimenton and a suggestion of saffron, but neither dominates the dish.

Definitely share appetizers such as roasted piquillo peppers, a vast red plain slick with olive oil and crunchy with salt and toasted garlic; or “laminas de gambas,” shrimp meat flattened as thin as a CD, gently cooked and glistening with garlic oil.

Palates grown accustomed to bold flavors might be surprised by the refined cooking here. But quiet can be complex, and restraint reveals the quality of the ingredients.

Unimaginably tender sautéed veal cheeks, for instance, are robed in what looks like brown gravy, but that Rioja-enriched sauce reverberates with flavors as multifaceted as the wine itself. A swirl of sweet, cinnamon-spiked apple sauce trails cochinillo, soft, rosemary-scented roast suckling pig, pulled from the bone and shaped into a cylinder wrapped with crisp skin.

Organic stuffed chicken breast had enough character not only to compete with an earthy filling of minced wild mushrooms and foie gras, but also with an intoxicating reduction of pan juices sweetened with Pedro Ximenez wine. Sausagelike stuffed squid, their bodies plumped with a savory mince of garlic, onion, herbs, rice and more squid, come submerged in their own ink; every murky spoonful tastes resoundingly of the sea.

The squid is served in tapas. That collection of small to medium plates is offered from lunch through closing (and at 50 percent off during happy hour). The offerings might be as simple as sliced Serrano ham and manchego wedges with picos (stubby breadsticks). Notable among the more elaborate plates were a broken fried egg over French fries studded with bits of Iberico ham, and creamy codfish brandade rolled in strips of zucchini and dabbed with nutty romesco sauce.

Midway through lunch one day, I realized that everyone within earshot was reminiscing about their travels in Spain. In a setting so inimitably Iberian, you just can’t help it.

Providence Cicero:

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