Sitting on top of the world. That’s the feeling on the upper terrace of the new DeSpana, located on the corner of Nassau and Olden streets, in the heart of the upper Nassau Street restaurant row. The sunny colors of Spain greet you as you enter the shoppers’ delight on the first floor. Freshly made sandwiches, most all $8.50, and rack upon rack of imported delicacies are waiting, making decisions difficult. You want to sample everything.
This desire is compounded as you head to the second floor where the restaurant proper is. A seating bar, overlooking the shop downstairs, is available for quicker stays. Two flat-screen TVs perch high up on the walls, one tuned to European sports. Turn left and you are in the dining room proper with the terrace beckoning. On the classic summer Saturday night we were there, there was no choice but the terrace. The jaunty retro-red chairs and marble-topped tables are well spaced and of course, Nassau Street and its people watching is stretched out below. Our party of three arrived at opening, 6 p.m, and were seated immediately. There are no reservation except for parties of 8 or more. By the time we left about two hours later, there was quite the waiting line. Not bad for a new place open only about a week.
Piped in Spanish music fits the mood. Primarily BYO, they invite you to bring your best red or white wine by providing the fixings for sangria. Normally getting water for the table is not worth a comment but DeSpana serves it up in funky, bale top bottles. Yet another retro touch. The menu is mostly tapas plates but they are not miniscule offerings. The three of us shared several and relished more than one mouthful each. They treat you to warm bread and olives (not olive oil), and the bread is a golden, hearty farmhouse kind well deserving of seconds.
The hot and cold tapas range around $9 to $12 with gazpacho at $8. Mussels, Seranto ham, and other Spanish delicacies abound. We ordered a small size paella ($24) first, knowing it would take the longest. When it was served, the wait was well worth it. The rice was fully cooked and the chicken, shrimp, chiorzo and seabass were steeped in the broth. While we waited we attacked the calamare, very lightly fried with poppy seed coating, an order of inch-long chirozo sausages and some eggplant fritters, a total surprise and delight. They too are very lightly fried with a cilantro-ginger honey glaze. Those are almost a dessert.
And dessert is a choice of flan, which is richly caramel, or orange slices in olive oil and mint. Both are $6. Espresso in a variety of forms, cafe con leche, and tea are available as are imported Kas soda in lemon, orange, and apple. Conventional drinks are available as well.
As a not-quite-footnote, be prepared to channel your inner matador as you are greeted on your way upstairs by a remarkably huge bull’s head, an iconic reminder of the real Spain. This noble-looking fellow is sans both ears so he seems to have fought the good fight.
DeSpana is open 11 to 4 for lunch and 6 to, wait for it, 11 p.m. for dinner. At last a place to go after a show. The small plates are the perfect light, late night bite. A couple could easily share a couple of items and be well satisfied.
The owners of this new destination have honed their skills at their New York venues, and it shows. Presentation features wood salvers, fired clay dishes, and personal-sized enamel speckle ware platters. The ambiance is relaxed, and the terrace offers quiet conversation. Inside was noisy when packed but it was not as deafening as some other places in town. There were a couple of children there the night we dined but it was mostly groups and couples out for a lovely summer supper. For someone willing to try different things, it is a perfect date destination and its proximity to downtown makes it a delighful alternative to the heart of town. I know we will be sitting on top of the world often.
DeSpana, 235 Nassau Stret, Princeton. 609-921-2992. www.despanaprinceton.com.