Ed note: Gothamist Food contributors Beth Butts and Chris Steighner bring us a new weekly column: The First Course

Have you ever noticed that the first course tends to outshine the rest of the meal? All seductions begin that way, of course. We gaze at our love starry-eyed, and then we learn that they snore, or are slobs, or have the unfortunate habit of talking with their mouth full. Chefs can be the most fickle of lovers--eager to win us over immediately, they expend most of their creative juices on appetizers, sometimes to the neglect of the entrees. The main course may be more filling but is never as dazzling or daring as the little dishes that come before.

So, in this new column Gothamist has decided to turn the tables and focus solely on the first course. We'll stop in at different restaurants around town (with no reservations) and eat at the bar (or in the bar room), ordering only appetizers, and report our findings. We'll also cook up some of our favorite appetizers. There's a benefit to this manner of eating for the budget-conscious as well: appetizers are a lot less pricey. Even in the city's haute restaurants, if you stick just to nibbly things, you can come away sated for half the cost of a full meal. Just think of it as economically minded portion control.

2005_12_Food_Bolo.JPGThe small-plates phenomenon seems now to have transcended its trendiness and is here to stay. So we decided to go back to one of the first big restaurants that introduced tapas-style dining to a large audience--Bobby Flay's Bolo in the Flatiron district. How has it held up since its opening twelve years ago?

We sampled numerous items from the tapas menu, which offers four from a list of 12 dishes for $16. The most delectable was the pork, potato, and goat cheese skewer, which was more like a stacked napoleon with slices of each. The tanginess of the cheese (an unlikely choice) gives just the right spike for its milder counterparts. And each of the three components varies in degrees of melting texture, taking you through a scale of tenderness in one bite.

Second on our list is the salted cod fritter with parsley and garlic sauce. If, like us, you're not a fan of mushy reconstituted salt cod, despite its recent rise to vogue, don't worry. This is one cod dish that's sure to satisfy. The fritter was nicely crisped on the outside and inside had the lovely texture of whipped mashed potatoes. Split it in half to share and breathe in the aroma released before sopping in the sauce.

The piquillo pepper stuffed with raw tuna salad paired the unctuousness of the fish perfectly with that of the roasted pepper. The flavors recall ceviche but in a different form. Piquillo, not too sweet, has a smoky edge without being too hot. The menu's choice of phrasing, "raw tuna salad," is interesting. Is it possible that this dish originated before tuna tartare became such a cliché? In any case, it didn't taste cliché.

Stay away from the eggy tortilla (boring, but isn't it always?), the rice cake (gummy and acrid with too much saffron). And beware that many of the tapas come with similar classic Spanish sauces involving red pepper, garlic, and saffron. If you order more than 4, you may start to tire of the repetition.

The wine menu features quite a few modestly priced bottles of Spanish wine, if you'd like to share one. The décor, we are sorry to report, is definitely due for a makeover. The entire front wall is plastered with brightly colored geometric cutout patterns dotted with off-kilter light fixtures. Stare at it too long and you may feel as if you've stepped into an A-Ha video from the 80s.

These days you can find more authentic tapas in the city (Tia Pol is rightly hailed as the new queen of them all). Bolo may be past its prime in hipness, but that's all the better for us bar-eaters. Here you can cozy up to a stool, feel welcome and warm, and sample some inventive, three-star cuisine. Just keep your eyes on the food and don't mind the décor.

23 East 22nd Street (between Broadway and Park Ave. South)
Tel: 212-228-2200

by Beth Butts and Chris Steighner