Tapas: Bite-Size Beauties

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How many Flavors can a tapa hold? Originally, a tapa was a piece of bread set on top of a wine glass to ward off flies and hunger. Today, a few tapas can make a full-fledged meal. The tapas capital of the world is San Sebastián, in the gastronomic heart of Spanish Basque country — where San Sebastián is called Donostia and tapas are called pintxos.

Whatever the city's name, its streets are lined with places serving one delectable nibble after another. But even in these rich pintxo pastures, nowhere is the grazing more highly evolved than at Aloña-Berri (www.alonaberri.com), which routinely sweeps national and regional tapas competitions with its innovative offerings. Aloña-Berri's staff manage to fit more tastes in a teaspoon than most restaurants put on a platter; their architectural pintxos are so elaborate that I have counted 12 perfectly balanced elements in a single bite.

Take txipiron. Traditional tapas bars serve the tiny squid simply grilled. At Aloña-Berri the txipiron is stuffed with onion confit, artfully suspended over a thimbleful of seafood-laced martini, garnished with a fragile pane of caramelized sugar scattered with onion sprouts and red pepper, and accompanied by a cube of toasted squid-ink rice. The bar offers a 10-course haute cuisine feast in miniature for a minuscule price of $35, but don't miss the pigeon baztela cooked slowly with sweet spices, raisins and rose petals, then wrapped in a crisp filo pastry. Another standout is the milhojas, a luscious caramelized tower of coin-sized potato disks sandwiched between slices of apple, cèpe mushroom and foie gras. The only problem? One bite is never enough.