Smile Politely

V. Picasso: dining, artfully done

Over our artisanal cheese platter, my friend Marla and I reminisced with V. Picasso owner Victor Fuentes about the days when Thursday was El Matador night. We first met and became friends with Victor when he worked at the restaurant.

That was ten years ago. My friend (and Marla’s sister) Mindy and I had just moved here from Los Angeles, and our Thursday night El Matador get-togethers served to mark the difference between the place we had just left and the one we were currently calling home.

L.A. — so large, so many opportunities, but a place where neighbors never meet and every place is either too expensive or too far away for a weeknight outing; and Champaign — warm, friendly, and smaller, but still with opportunities for quality social/cultural experiences, all of which are close and affordable.

Victor Fuentes, still a young man, was much younger then — only a year out of high school, and just beginning to learn the local restaurant trade through which he would soon blaze a trail.

El Matador became El Torero when Victor and his family decided to buy the business for themselves, and El Torero gave birth to the chain of El Toro (the name most people used when referring to the original store) restaurants currently populating the area. In addition, the Fuentes family owns restaurants in St. Joseph, Monticello, Rantoul, Danville, and Bloomington.

Fast forward to this past week. My friends and I sat in the chic, comfortable dining area of V. Picasso Tapas Bar at 214 W. Main Street in Urbana. As we munched and sipped, we talked with Victor about the upscale dining establishment. He candidly answered questions about the ups and downs of the new business venture, confessing that he had wondered at times if opening it was the right thing to do.

From where I was sitting, it was.

Rooting for the success of the Fuentes family as I do, I knew it would be hard to write an objective review of the newest restaurant. It turns out there was no need to worry; a glowing recommendation is in order, regardless of who owns it.

We sampled a total of eight dishes, two of which were complimentary. To start the meal, we ordered mixed black and green olives marinated in lime zest and shallots. A mini bowl-sized portion, easily enough for three or four people to snack on, was only $3. The balance between oil, brine, and bright but subtle citrus flavors made them a step above anything I’ve scooped out of a deli bin.

The olives were accompanied by a complimentary cup of potato soup which came across as light but rich at the same time.

My friend Marla ordered a chorizo tortilla (read: omelet) while my friend Stacy selected zucchini tostas — pieces of grilled baguette topped with goat cheese, grilled zucchini, and a sage crisp, and drizzled with honey. The tostas were a light bite and a good complement to the rich, intensely flavorful, and perfectly cooked tortilla.

Pictured above is the Plato Queso.

Therein lies the trick when ordering tapas — pairing the decadent with the fresh, the simple with the complex, and so on.

Victor stated that he has counseled some of his customers who are new to tapas-style dining on how to select a few dishes that will work well together. He has found that the concept of piecing together a meal eludes some people, especially when they are used to getting a platter filled from one end to the other with rich, saucy food wherever they go.

To illustrate the point, take the Serrano Banderilla. This dish arrived as two small skewers with strips of serrano ham wound fancifully around one end and bits of manchego cheese and whole green olives on the other. The plate was drizzled with a sauce described as a paprika pudding.

I remember that the ham had a remarkably complex flavor and a fun, slightly chewy texture. I also expected something a little more along the lines of a casserole, but this was my error, which leads to lesson number one when eating tapas: when in doubt, ask the server. He or she will be able to give information beyond the menu description. (For the record, I enjoyed the dish — it just wasn’t what I had envisioned.)

Speaking of asking the server, ours recommended the Bacalao Frito: fried salt cod potato pancakes with lime aioli. These were, in my opinion, the holy grail of food — a dish that is Salty Enough.

I am a salt junky, often adding it to individual bites of food. I think the fact that the cod dish was so flavorful to begin with accentuated the fact that it was (in my opinion) also perfectly seasoned.

Pictured above is the Ribeye.

It should be noted that V. Picasso also employees a baker who produces fresh baguettes and delicious little delicate, streusel-topped muffins just for the restaurant (the muffins being the second complimentary dish).

Speaking of free food — call me a simpleton when it comes to this, but it usually does make a big impression on me. I like to think it’s more than just my hyper-frugality or gluttony coming through; to me, a little bit of complimentary food at a restaurant is a gesture of hospitality and appreciation. It’s what I would do if I were to own a place.

Also along the lines of hospitality, the individual glasses of wine we ordered came in attractive, sturdy goblets that were generously filled. I’m all for oversized, delicate stemware with a classy little puddle of wine filling just the bowl, but sometimes it’s nice to be served something a little more hearty.

This is where I think V. Picasso bears a resemblence to its El Toro counterparts: the quality, the attention to detail, the feeling that whenever you are there, you’re the most important customer they have, and the obvious desire on the part of the owners to provide an enjoyable experience (live music is a regular feature and was playing the night we were there).

By the way, Victor is quick to credit his family, including brothers Sami and Juan, for the success of the restaurants. “At the end of the day, we’re still brothers,” he says of their ability to butt heads over details, but ultimately share a vision of what they want their business to be.

Ten years since meeting Victor Fuentes — gone in a blink. But what a ten years they were.

In those early days of living in Champaign my husband was still My Friend Scott, and the Thursday night get togethers at El Matador are now an important part of McMillan family history.

The festive Thursdays are firmly, sadly in the past, but we can revisit them any time we step into a Fuentes family-owned restaurant. I’m glad those options now include the elegant, lively, inviting V. Picasso.

V. Picasso, located at 214 W. Main St. in Urbana, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. You can reach them at 217-328-0122.

Related Articles