Home to the towering Pyrenees as well as miles of coastline, the diverse landscape of the Iberian Peninsula has given birth to a cuisine just as varied. From spicy chorizo sausage to succulent shrimp, it is sometimes said that the food of Spain and Portugal is so varied, only two ingredients tie it together: garlic and olive oil.
New Jersey has one of the largest concentrations of residents who identify themselves as having Spanish roots, so most of us are no strangers to the food of the Iberian Peninsula. Newark's Ironbound district, home to a thriving Portuguese community and dozens of Spanish and Portuguese restaurants, is just 15 minutes away from Cranford.
But even closer, in our own downtown, is Cervantes of Spain, a restaurant whose name pays tribute to the 16th century author of "Don Quixote." Its proximity to the Ironbound sets a high bar for Cervantes—something the restaurant acknowledges on its Web site—but only at a first glance does this establishment rise to the occasion.
Exposed brick walls, a gas fireplace on one side, diamond-paned leaded glass windows on the other and a Spanish alabaster chandelier hanging over the center make for a dim, old-fashioned formal dining room.
The menu is not inventive but includes many of the meat and seafood favorites one would expect in a Spanish restaurant. Clams sautéed in a white wine and tomato or green sauce ($8) and grilled chorizo (sausage) sautéed with garlic and sherry ($8.25) are some of the highlights of the appetizer menu. Entrees include filet of sole, clams, mussels and shrimp sautéed in a white wine and sherry sauce ($19), sliced filet mignon and shrimp in a brown sauce ($22) stuffed chicken breast with cured ham, Spanish cheese and spinach ($16).
My friend and I stopped in on a recent weeknight for dinner. Fans of Iberian food from the Ironbound district, we looked forward to what Cervantes might have to offer, but were sadly let down. We passed on the prix-fixe selection and instead opted for entrees from the regular menu, which included our choice of a chicken vegetable or a cream of garlic soup. I went with the good but unmemorable chicken vegetable soup; my friend was pleased with his selection of the cream of garlic soup.
For the entree, I ordered a steak in a garlic sauce. It arrived in an intricately arranged plate: a tender, sirloin steak, covered with a slice of ham and a fried egg, swimming in a brown sauce and surrounded by fried potato chips standing upright.
I was looking forward to this garlic sauce, but I was partway through eating my steak before I remembered that the brown sauce it was served in was supposed to be a garlic sauce. The only hint of garlic flavor came from some browned pieces of garlic on the side of the steak.
Homemade potato chips should be a treat, and the brown color of these chips were a reminder that these were fried in-house, but the only flavor they had was an overpowering almost-burnt taste. They were not crisp, but soggy.
My friend ordered the "mariscada en su salsa": simmered lobster, clams, scallops, shrimp and mussels in a green sauce. The shrimp were overcooked, the lobster portion was tiny and the green sauce lacked not only the color, but also the parsley/onion/saffron flavor that an authentic green sauce should have.
Cervantes has a full bar adjacent to the dining room, and with Spain being the third largest producer of wine, I was disappointed to see that the wine "list" was not a list at all, but a handful of bottles standing upright on a ledge near the fireplace (Cervantes' Web site, however, does include an actual descriptive wine list). When we selected a red from Montecillo, our waiter pulled a bottle—not from a sideways rack in a cool place—but right from the ledge and opened it for us.
Service was polite and attentive, answering questions and willing to make adjustments to our dishes, such as no mussels with the mariscada dish.
The ingredients for greatness are there—the polite service, formal dining room, convenient location and a local history of Spanish and Portuguese immigration. But Cervantes fails in its execution.
With the Ironbound just 15 minutes away, Cranford residents are better off hopping on the Parkway and enjoying a quality Iberian meal in a lively atmosphere at one of its many longstanding establishments.
Cervantes of Spain is located at 24 North Avenue East, and can be reached at 908-276-3664.