The Rules, as dictated by Judas Goat Taberna, seem curiously hostile for such an otherwise hospitable little tapas bar.
"As intended with this style of eating, our seatings are short - you've got an hour and a half!" reads a warning on the check-box menu. "It's all about sharing - we don't separate bills."
Probably better to take the bull by the horns than be passive-aggressive, like those namesake Judas goats who make nice with farm animals before herding them off to slaughter.
I can understand why owners Sean Heather and Scott Hawthorn have imposed the strict time limitations, given the stampede of eager customers champing at the bit. My first attempt to visit was on a Saturday night. There was a two-hour wait list and people were being turned away left, right and centre. "After all that hype," I overheard another would-be customer lament.
The hype is well justified. Because once I finally lassoed a table at this tiny, 28-seat hideaway, I was thrilled to discover that of all the trendy new Spanish-themed tapas bars now running around the ring, Judas Goat is the only matador worth cheering for.
The first thing to love is the intimate space, a low-ceilinged cubbyhole lined with Carrera marble, mosaic tile, high-top tables and bright yellow stools. A long ledged window looks onto Gastown's cobblestoned Blood Alley (once bordered by abattoirs), creating a lively San Sebastian vibe that invites you (were it possible) to stroll on in and have a bite before sauntering off to one of the many venues quickly populating this up-and-coming neighbourhood.
The drinks list is wee yet enticing, with about a dozen decently priced wines, an eclectic beer selection, homemade sangria and a handful of sherries.
But the main draw is the food, created by executive chef Lee Humphries, who runs all of Mr. Heather's restaurant operations, including the nearby Irish Heather and Salt Tasting Room.
While he may draw inspiration from other areas (Italy, France, the West Coast), and the portions are larger than in a traditional tapas bar (our group of three was more than sated with 10 small plates, priced at $6 to $8), Mr. Humphries captures the true essense of nouvelle Spanish cuisine. Experimental flavours, compelling texture combinations, innovative techniques and top-quality ingredients provoke as much as they delight.
Bruschetta ($2.25 each or four for $8) is more than your standard toasted bread and spread. It's a proper amuse-bouche, one that juices up the palate with bright bursts of full-throttled flavour, setting the stage for what lies ahead.
On one, super salty anchovies are anchored with garden-fresh salsa verde. On another, earthy chorizo is embraced with sweet caramelized onions and runny licks of dark chocolate. Hot piquillo peppers and tangy goat cheese hit a whole different set of taste buds, while lusty, Sherry-stewed mushrooms leave you salivating for more.
There are so many unusual dishes on the menu - rabbit rillette with carrot panna cotta, potted prawns in pistachio butter, scallop tartare with pork rinds - it's hard to choose.
Meatballs ($6) spiked with toothpicks in a rustic tomato sauce are made with pulled beef brisket for extra succulence. Melt-in-your-mouth pork belly ($6) is ingeniously crusted with an orange zest and pine nut gremolata, giving the teeth something to chew on before sinking into the creamy, full-fatted pork.
Tender lamb cheeks ($8) - my favourite of the night - are braised sous-vide until the meat falls apart, then delicately wrapped in a beautiful, bright-green Savoy cabbage terrine splashed with white truffle oil. Mmm.
Given the intricacy of the dishes, most are prepped off-site and finished in the restaurant's open kitchen. Kudos to the chef for not letting the small space cramp his creativity.
At times, he's slightly too experimental. A dark chocolate tart ($7), while deeply delicious on its own, clashes with a side smear of vinegary chili jam that tastes like hot-dog relish (more chili, less slime might work).
And he is perhaps a bit too enamoured with lemon zest, which works fine with slow-cooked paprika sablefish ($9), but overpowers an otherwise pitch-perfect veal sweetbread saltimbocca ($6) with sage brown butter.
The floor staff, while friendly, may want to brush up on their product knowledge. I'm sure the spicy salmon "pastrami" is cured with cayenne - indeed, that's what I later read on the restaurant's web site - even though our server repeatedly insists that it isn't.
And although I know, having read The Rules, that the idea is to get customers in and out quickly, the food comes out too fast and furious. You may want to ask your server to pace the meal, if you plan on using up your full hour and a half - which you should, because there's so much here to savour.