Laci’s Tapas Bar, Syracuse, N.Y.

Admittedly, I had been hesitant to try Laci’s Tapas Bar though I don’t know why. Small plates restaurants are either very good or very bad, with no middle ground. On one side there’s the Meddlesome Moth in Dallas, Tex., which was listed on Eater.com‘s lists of best and hottest restaurants in the metroplex when I visited last winter. On the other is a recently opened restaurant in Syracuse’s Armory Square that has received the same anecdotal review from everyone I have talked to: the food is ordinary and the service is terrible and borderline rude.

Laci’s opened in its current location on Hawley Avenue in 2010, after its owners moved their operation from Eastwood’s Palace Theatre. The historic house it sits in is the former Pascale’s Bake House near Catherine Street. I’m glad I did make reservations for 6 p.m. on the evening of our visit, as the restaurant would be packed with a line by the time we walked out a couple of hours later.

Beef Wellington
Beef Wellington

What Laci’s effervesces is customer service. Every staffer wears a name tag, so there is no guessing about whom you are speaking to. Everyone but the bartender and the kitchen staff stopped by our table at least once to ask us how we were doing, if this was our first time and what we liked. This included both owners, the hostesses and most of the waitstaff. Never once did The Wife and I feel as if we were not being attended to, a tough task for restaurants that shrink their labor to increase profitability.

The Wife and I started with drinks, as you tend to do after a week of work. A lengthy wine menu features New York State wines in addition to award-winning labels from around the world. The Wife opted for the homemade sangria, which sits in a large dispenser on the bar. I went with a Dogfish Head Raison d’Etre, one of six craft draught beers, which are $2 off on Friday nights.

Spanish Sliders
Spanish Sliders

The gastropub-inspired menu is broken into Carnivorous (meat), Herbivorous (vegetarian/vegan), Tapas of the Sea (seafood), salads and soups, and flatbreads. Many dishes are gluten free or while a number of others can be made gluten-free for $2 more. We decided on the “divide and conquer” method for attacking the menu. We each picked two dishes and tried to agree on a fifth. Our waitress did her best to pace the dishes coming out of the kitchen, but as expected with these sorts of restaurants, you get what you get when you get it. Our selections included:

  • Beef Wellington Laci’s Style: puff pastry stuffed with beef tenderloin, bleu cheese and mashed potatoes. Beef Wellington is elegant and boring all at the same time. This was exceptional. The beef maintained a rich red color without being overcooked.
  • Spanish Sliders: Three mini-hamburgers with manchego cheese, peppers, caramelized onions and garlic aioli. The mini-brioche buns made these a fan favorite. We could have easily ordered another round.
  • Middle Eastern Plate: Probably the weakest of our choices. A good hummus and very good stuffed grape leaves was canceled out by a stringy and weirdly-textured baba ganoush.
  • Shrimp and Grits: A very good Northern rendering of the Southern classic. The bacon and rendered grease adds a nice creaminess to the hominy.
  • Apple Pork flatbread: I like the flavor combination of pork and apples and this met expectations.
Shrimp & Grits
Shrimp & Grits

If money were no object and we were more irresponsible eaters, I think we would have also gone for the martini beef skewers (sirloin marinated in vodka and olive brine), mac ‘n’ cheese eggrolls and tuna tartare. But, I suppose this rises to the top of the list for the next visit. Along with the Spanish sliders and beef wellington.

Photo Jan 17, 6 56 16 PM
Peanut Butter Surprise

Desserts are made by neighboring bakery 83 & Company. The Wife went right for the peanut butter surprise, a molten chocolate cake that oozed peanut butter mousse. I was stuck between the mini cheesecakes and chocolate caramel mousse, settling on the latter. The mousse was the mortar between layers of chocolate cake. Both desserts were good enough that we refused to share them with one another.

Chocolate caramel mousse
Chocolate caramel mousse

It’s easy to say that the staff at Laci’s went out of its way to make us feel welcomed and appreciated, but it spoke to something larger to me. It shows a level of pride in their work, with each dish that emerges from the kitchen as if they made it themselves. That the owners stopped by our table to chat and later ask whether we enjoyed our meals, in between busing tables and running plates to tables during rushes, is a sign of investment that few restaurateurs show. They don’t ask their staff to do anything that they would not do.

Admittedly, my hesitation to visit was misguided. The only question that remains here at Al Dente HQ is when we will get back there.

Laci’s Tapas Bar is located at 304 Hawley Ave. in Syracuse’s Hawley-Green neighborhood. Parking is available behind the restaurant. Reservations are accepted by phone and online. Dinner for two with drinks and dessert was $96 before tip.

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