Taberna features freshness you can taste

Small dishes pack a powerful punch at Taberna Restaurant Tapas & Wine Bar in Fairfield.

This is because Daniel Lopez, chef and owner of the Spanish-style restaurant, uses only fresh ingredients sourced locally.

And he flavors his dishes with herbs handpicked at the eatery.

“I grow basil, mint, cilantro, parsley and rosemary,” he says.

The menu ensures that no two trips to Taberna are alike. Though the restaurant’s signature dishes, like the classic paella Valenciana — a pungent combo of chicken, Spanish sausage and saffron cebolla rice — are available year-round, Lopez may incorporate other, less traditional ingredients, like lobster, shrimp or clams.

“The dishes change according to the season or what is fresh,” he says.

But natural flavors remain the chef’s signature.

“I love cooking and I love Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine,” he says. “It’s my passion.”

Lopez, originally from Ecuador, worked in the restaurant business for two years before taking his passion north. In 1994, he immigrated to the United States with his brother, Jaime, and worked in a series of restaurants to gain firsthand experience. In 2008, Lopez and his brother opened the first Taberna Tapas & Wine Bar in Bridgeport, which remained in business for nine years. Lopez then relocated Taberna to its current spot, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in June.

To salute the summer months, Lopez is featuring variations on two popular dishes on a weekly basis — ceviche, using raw, marinated fish, and gazpacho, a spicy cold tomato soup. Lopez is also offering a summer salad, dubbed Chef Daniel’s Salad, which consists of baby arugula, endive, pears, nuts and mustard seeds dressed in a citrus vinaigrette. Summer cocktails include fresh-fruit martinis made with mint from the garden.

During my visit to Taberna, Lopez suggests that I taste a few popular plates. He first presents two versions of crostini (thinly sliced and toasted bread) — one served with  grilled strip steak, Manchego cheese and chimichurri sauce and one with smoked wild salmon, Manchego cheese and a Mediterranean vegetable relish. There’s also a shrimp and bay scallop ceviche, featuring a delicate mélange of fresh tomatoes, red onions and freshly squeezed lime juice. Lopez then presents Chef Daniel’s Salad, the epitome of summer fare, and a vegetable empanada, made with a flaky crust that is both rich and light.

Though each plate is different, they share one quality — a purity of flavor. Biting into the skirt steak crostini, I expect the meat to leave a lasting impression, but instead, it is the savory chimichurri sauce. The juices from the homegrown tomatoes in the ceviche delectably meld with the fish, while the sweetness of the salad’s pears are a satisfying surprise in that palate-cleansing dish.

And though the intense, organic flavors awaken my taste buds, the portions are not overwhelming, creating a comfortable balance.

Taberna Restaurant Tapas & Wine Bar is offering a complimentary bottle of white, red or Rosé wine or a pitcher of white, red or Rosé sangria with the purchase of five tapas plates. It is in the Brick Walk Promenade at 1229 Boston Post Road in Fairfield. For more, call 203-338-0203 or visit tabernarestaurant-ct.com.

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