Chorizo con Jerez. One of several reasons to head back. Tim Pawsey photo

Glancing around the room at Sardine Can (26 Powell St., 604-568-1350), I realise that I recognise just about everyone here. One sure sign a newbie has it made is when industry ‘insiders’ pack in from the word go.

Then again, I’m not surprised. Andrey Durbach and Chris Stewart (Pied à Terre, La Buca, Cafeteria etc.) do have a knack for coming up with the goods. Aptly named Sardine Can (just 19 stools, at three tables and the bar) is no exception. Yes, it’s small. But if you go early (they’re open from 3 p.m.) or later in the evening (until 11 p.m.), chances are you’ll score a seat or two.

One of the reasons for the success these guys enjoy is that they have an innate sense not only of what people are looking for but also they absolutely understand that diners really appreciate knowing what they’re getting before they get there. There’s never any ambiguity about their restaurants—and this latest is no exception.

Gastown is becoming one vibrant neighbourhood. Tasty too. Plus, rumours of Rodney's arriving a few doors down... Tim Pawsey photo

What’s intriguing to me is the contrast between Sardine Can and nearby Judas Goat Taberna (part of Gastown’s Sean Heather’s expanding empire). Although they’re about the same smallness, the ‘Goat is edgily designed with an overall more modern take, while Sardine Can is decidedly classic, in design and on the menu. I like them both. In fact, I look forward to the day when there are a dozen of these kinds of spots in Gastown or elsewhere; and we can seriously ‘do’ tapas, the way they do on Madrid’s Cava Baja. Mind you, given our neanderthal liquor laws (which get all excited when people stand around and eat and drink) that may yet be a while. But we can dream, can’t we?

Not as sardinesque as you might think, but go early or late ...Tim Pawsey photo

It’s been only a couple of nights since we were at Sardine Can and we’re already salivating at the thought of going back—mainly because we love this style of shared small plates (Yes, these are serious tapas) and there wasn’t one item we tasted that didn’t impress us. Well, maybe the patatas bravas were a little soft but we got over that pretty fast once we upped the aioli ante.

Friendly, laid back but efficient service, TP photo

How come it all works so well? The dishes are simple: solid ingredients driven by robust flavours. And the prices are fair. Most dishes are $10, some $5 and you’ll pay a little more for Pata Negra and Serrano ham, which is a fact of life. And worth it.

Next time we’ll remember our Spanish manners and kick off with some Alvear Fino before we get into the gusty Spanish reds. The wine and drinks list is efficiently short (though they do have some Rioja tucked away), for the most part also well priced, and deservedly 100 percent Spanish, which is fine by me. The glasses are authentically small too. Besides, you don’t come here to sniff the wine, you come to drink it. They also do very well for Sherry—of which there are six on the list, all different styles. And we might have to have some Spanish brandy next time. Just to be polite, and remember our last trip to Spain… Oh, and lest we forget, there’s a trio of Cava too, including Parres Balta. Come to think of it, this is one seriously smart, concise list that covers a lot of ground. Plus, I like the fact that they don’t gouge on the cheap bubble, unlike quite a few other places.

Highlights from the equally focused one page menu?

Smoked sardines on toasts. Better by the batch. Tim Pawsey photo

The smoked sardines on nicely crisped tostadas are wicked ($5). So too is Guisado de Pulpo—a nicely balanced zesty chorizo, potato and octopus stew. Not only that but the octopus is really tender, made that way, apparently, by the traditional use of a wine cork in the water. Google it if you don’t believe me.

Meatballs (Albondigas), marble sized and flavour packed, cooked in a rich tomato and Rioja wine sauce ($10) are decidedly addictive; the grilled trout (daily special from the chalkboard) was another winner; and the chorizo con Jerez—cooked in sherry—is another definite keeper ($10).

There’s a $2.50 charge per sourdough bread order but I don’t begrudge them that. Plus it’s Terra bread… You’ll want a few orders so you don’t waste any of the sauces.

Dulce de leché, another classic. Tim Pawsey photo

Save room for desserts, too. The chocolate terrine with chili, sea salt and olive oil is killer ($5) especially with a drop of Gonzalez Byass Nutty Solera Oloroso; and we’ll be back for the dulce de leché (Caramel custard flan $5), no question.

Because the room is small (although it doesn’t feel cramped, thanks to the high ceilings) there’s a nice buzz. Our server (very knowledgeable and friendly) was never far away and really had a handle on what was going on.

Sardine Can? Great idea! We can’t wait to go back. Plus they give you a healthy, 10 percent cash discount—a first for any Vancouver restaurant, as far as we know.

Now, can we put one one in my ‘hood?

Por favor?

(A shorter review appears in today’s Vancouver Courier)