La Zuppa turns tapas into a fiesta

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      This week we're off to a place that has chugged along for a decade, isn't in Yaletown, and doesn't have a publicist to sweeten your in box with ardent prose and 15-megabyte photos of the chef's hand-raised micro-tortoises en gelée. Instead, La Zuppa in North Vancouver should buy Edie Orenstein a free drink because she–hat maker by day, flamenco dancer by night (this is one of the places she stomps her black-clad feet)–is the one who told me about it. The man and I had a very, very good time there last Friday.

      We met Wayne at the next table, who poured me two glasses from his bottle of [yellowtail] and gave us his extra order of bread. We met Arlette, the server who hails from Tabasco, Mexico, and still smiles when anyone makes the inevitable wisecrack. And, like all the other customers, we met Juan and Victoria, who laughs more than any woman I've ever met.

      Juan Carlos Paez, who's from Argentina, opened La Zuppa a decade ago. Victoria Bakich, who's from Canada, walked in for a coffee a few years later and basically never walked out. For the past six years their place, like Orenstein, has led a double life: by day, it's a local lunch hangout–hearty soups, generous sandwiches–but Friday and Saturday nights, it shimmies out of its work duds, puts on its frills, sticks a red rose between its teeth, and becomes a little Sevillian cantina.

      Walls the colour of persimmons and melons hold embroidered pictures and black-and-white shots of Chile, Mexico, and Cuba. Juan's grandma and grandpa hang, photographically speaking, at the end of the bar. On warm nights, the restaurant opens up the doors onto the sidewalk, and nights in general, they set down a portable dance floor somewhat smaller than a parking space for a Smart car.

      LA ZUPPA
      1544 Lonsdale Avenue,
      North Vancouver,
      604-986-6556.

      Open Monday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight.

      What happens on it is definitely Spanish flamenco, but though the dinner menu calls them tapas, the plates here are larger than would be authentic in Spain and are inspired, as Bakich points out, by places all around the Mediterranean. A defiantly multicultural quasi-antipasto included hefty feta slices, walnuts, fat olives on a radicchio leaf, carrot and celery sticks, red-pepper rings, and tart dried pomegranate seeds (an Iranian influence–arrive in the neighbourhood early enough and you can shop at Yaas Grocery just up the block). With warm focaccia on the side, it was enough to feed a half-dozen Kate Mosses. Similarly, a "small" paella is a good-size bowl of seasoned rice with enough mussels, shrimp, and chorizo slices to divide evenly, and plenty of pork and chicken chunks. Not overly spicy, but pleasant.

      If there's one problem here, it's the size of the dishes. Tables are close enough that you can see what others are eating, and three tapas per couple is average. Our favourite dish of the night was five (!) cakes of grilled, commendably light polenta, which were topped with cheese, shredded chicken seasoned with achiote, and sweet-sharp pickled onions. No room to try the patatas bravas, albondigas, bacalao, and sambuca prawns. As it was, we ogled mussels at the next table, and lamb chops with fig preserves at another, and an empanada (hold your hands apart, fingers and thumbs touching–that big) but only had space for an afogato, a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it, the sum of which far exceeded its parts.

      Meanwhile, we ate up the flamenco, in all its swirly-skirted, staccato-stepping, finger-clicking glory, and clapped in time with live guitar and violin (no cover charge except what you want to put in the basket they bring around). Both Paez and Bakich cook, emerging occasionally to chat with customers; later, the performers sit at the bar, and somehow it all coalesces into a loose-knit party.

      Who goes there? Couples, groups of women, Wayne and his three guy friends–regulars mostly, which, after a few Friday and Saturday evenings, you will be too. Figure about $60 for two for tapas and beer, sangria, or wine from the small, affordable list. And take to heart what this place says on its Web site: "Eat well, share time with your friends, enjoy music, laughter, and good conversation. Concern yourself with the things that really matter and all will be well in our world."

      Drive around in circles this summer and you'll uncover a wealth of food producers beavering away in the Fraser Valley (or, as it's been branded, "Mighty Fraser Country"). Self-guided Circle Farm Tours hold your hand so you don't get lost exploring Maple Ridge–Pitt Meadows, Mission, and four other areas. The Chilliwack route, for instance, leads you to places producing goat's milk cheese, honey, U-pick lavender for ice cream and cookies, and organic beef, as well as the Cultus Lake market. Brochures for downloading and printing are at www.circlefarmtour.ca/ . Each includes a map, descriptions, addresses, opening hours, and events. Everything, in fact, except the cooler and picnic basket.