As far as ambience, Malaga offers a balanced combination between an upscale restaurant and a homey hole-in-the-wall. The décor is subtle yet effective: brick red walls, simple wooden chairs and tables and white tablecloths; it is this simplicity that lends itself so wonderfully to the atmosphere. A genuinely charming maître d’ escorts patrons to their table where they are promptly waited upon by any one of a number of extremely graceful waiters.
If you happen to go to Malaga for your birthday, upon request a group of waiters, including a guitar player, will sing, not some corny, loud, obnoxious birthday song like those sung at Chili’s or T.G.I. Fridays, but the traditional Hispanic (although originally Mexican) equivalent to “Happy Birthday,” “Las Manañitas,” in perfect harmony.
The best times to go are the first and third Wednesday evening of every month when Malaga features an hour-long Flamenco performance, but be sure to make reservations as these nights fill up very quickly. At around eight o’clock, the lights in the left parlor of the restaurant get lowered and a bright spotlight shines on a miniscule stage. The stage is just large enough to hold five chairs along the wall and one to two dancers.
The main guitarist, Carlos Rubio, is skilled at Spanish finger-picking; he glides his fingers along the strings of the guitar, producing a beautiful and seemingly improvised melody. The singer, Julia Lopez from Madrid, who also dances and says she has done so “all [her] life,” sits next to Sr. Rubio clapping and singing in traditional Gypsy-Flamenco style (think Gypsy Kings).
The dancers are clearly experienced as can be seen through their skilled footing and castanet playing. The two young dancers, Teresa D’Aprile and Monica Herrera, move gracefully around the small stage, performing sets both alone and together, making the art appear effortless.
At the end of each half-hour set, the dancers walk among the patrons and invite them to come up on stage and dance. The group on stage laughed and clapped as the dancers attempted to teach the bravest of the patrons some basics of Flamenco.
As far as the dishes, to start, the champiñones rellenos (stuffed mushrooms) are exquisite. Small button mushrooms are filled with a crab-meat stuffing, topped with bread crumbs and baked just long enough, not so long that the mushrooms lose their tenderness.
The Paella Marinera, a Spanish trademark, was delicious. Oftentimes, paella tends to be overly salty, but Malaga’s paella was as close as you can get to the real thing outside of Spain. It was perfectly seasoned with the right amount of saffron – which is the star spice of the dish – and not too much salt. The bright yellowy-orange rice casserole is served in a cast-iron skillet and topped with half of a small lobster, which is surrounded by a ring of mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp. The presentation further adds to the balance of the sophisticated yet homey feel of the establishment. All of the entrée portion sizes can easily feed two and many (including the paella) for as little as $20.
The Crema Catalana, a Spanish version of crème bruleè, was delicious, but not executed on the same level as the paella or champiñones. The custard was the right texture – not too fluffy or gelatinous – but the sugar crust on top was not close to thick enough. This is just a minor detail, however, and in no way takes away from the outstanding taste and execution of the rest of the food, service and presentation.
If you have not been to Malaga, you are seriously missing out. The nature of Spanish food is such that even the pickiest eaters will find something to enjoy and the entertainment and service are without comparison. Put simply in the words of a fellow patron, Judy Marshall, “You just don’t find places like this anymore.”