Great and Small

Growing up in Mexico City with a Spanish father who loved to cook, Sandra Soto remembers eating plates of steaming paella: a traditional dish of fragrant saffron rice, fresh seafood, and vegetables. When she moved to Evansville and began teaching Spanish classes, “people wanted to learn more about the culture,” Soto says, so she planned outings for her students. Mexican restaurants? Check. Spanish food? Nowhere to be found.

Soto, who spent 11 years in the corporate world working in international business, decided the time was right to break into the restaurant industry. Spurred on by the revitalization of Downtown Evansville — new housing, businesses, and community projects such as the 11,000 seat arena — she thought Spanish cuisine would be a sophisticated addition to the area.

Eclipse Spanish Tapas Bar and Restaurant opened in July to enthusiastic, curious crowds who had watched the Fourth Street space evolve over the previous eight months. With brick and faux-painted walls, an elegant tin ceiling, and Spanish guitar music floating through the restaurant, the interior virtually is unrecognizable from its previous identity as a casual gelato shop. When Soto first peered inside the vacant storefront late last year, she saw potential despite the empty, nondescript space. “Every time I came in here,” she says, “I had this warm feeling.”

In December, Soto and Eclipse co-owner Ivan Davila began ripping through layers of wallpaper and dusty drywall. Finally, they reached the original brick wall — “and it was painted baby blue,” Soto remembers. They also found a stunning tin ceiling beneath a sterile layer of white paneling, and the space’s original beauty set the tone for a restaurant with a romantic, Old World feel.

I recently visited Eclipse with my husband, Eric, for a late Saturday dinner. We’d forgotten to make reservations (recommended, especially on weekends), but we gladly took a seat at the bar inside the front door. Eclipse’s interior seats around 40 people, and it’s cozy in a good way. Huddled together at the bar, talking quietly and drinking sangria, I felt like my husband and I were on our first date.

That cozy feeling was created on purpose, says Soto: “Tapas are about small portions, small dishes, and sharing with your friends and family.” The word “tapas” comes from the Spanish word for “cover” or “lid,” and numerous theories abound as to the invention of the small plate. One story claims that Spaniards used to cover their wine glasses with slices of bread to shield the wine from flies. Soon, they began creating small snacks — topping the bread with cheese and ham — and the practice evolved into a new way of eating small portions served hot or cold.[pagebreak]

In Spain, a group of diners orders a table full of tapas and shares the dishes — no hoarding, rushing, or germophobia. Patrons of Eclipse are encouraged to dine the same way: “We want Eclipse to be seen as not just a restaurant,” Soto says, “but a cultural experience.” Eric and I found that three tapas were ideal for two people, and we also ordered Eclipse’s tasty house-made sangria. Made with red or white wine, the drink is available in a half- or full liter carafe. The full liter allowed each of us two glasses of sangria.

From a menu that highlights seafood and vegetable dishes, we first snacked on the tabla fria, a plate of artisan cheeses: creamy, salty Manchego, the sharper Cabrales, and crumbly queso fresco. Spanish olives, slices of bread, and jamon Serrano (a thin-sliced aged ham) accompanied the cheeses. We also ordered cazuela de mariscos, which consisted of steamed mussels, shrimp, and fish in a savory broth of tomatoes, onion, garlic, and saffron, a common base for dishes in Spain, Soto says. Finally, we tried Soto’s favorite childhood meal — and our unanimous favorite dish. Eclipse’s vegetarian version of paella, a rice dish, came with tender green and red peppers, asparagus, garlic, and onion. The menu also includes a heavier paella with chicken, chorizo, and seafood.

For dessert, we ordered tres leches cake topped with cream and fresh fruit. I’d tasted the cake before and found the sweetness of evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream overpowering, but in Eclipse’s version, the cinnamon packs an unexpected punch that adds depth to the dessert.

Four months after Eclipse opened, the restaurant still attracts newcomers as well as devoted fans. The success has encouraged Soto and Davila to begin catering, and with Soto’s background in teaching Spanish, she’s contemplating an immersion program at the restaurant: “learning Spanish, dining, and wining,” she says with a laugh.

Still, there’s one aspect of the tapas experience that Soto doesn’t plan to duplicate: the fact that many Spanish bars and restaurants stay open until sunrise, catering to locals who love to party. She may expand the hours once the arena opens, but like an eclipse — the restaurant’s namesake, a rare astronomical phenomenon — she isn’t ruling anything out. “Eclipse means darkness and light, two contrasts that can make something really beautiful,” she says. “It’s like bringing light into the dark, into the Downtown that was forgotten for many years. Now, it’s time for Downtown to brighten and have a new life.”

Eclipse Spanish Tapas Bar and Restaurant
Location: 113 S.E. Fourth St. • Phone:  812-463-6040  • Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Mon.-Fri., 5-10 p.m. Sat. • Adult Beverages: Yes • Prices: Tapas $5-$12
Reservations: Yes • Payment: Major credit cards accepted (no American Express)

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