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While "appetizer" is generally used as a synonym for "hors d'oeuvres," it really isn't synonymous. The French term means "outside of the work;" originally it was an architectural term for outbuildings. So at a meal, it's any other bit of food except the main dish, whether the hors d'oeuvre stimulates hunger or sates it. An appetizer, on the other hand, is exactly what the word suggests: something that whets the appetite and enlivens the palate in preparation for the main event. Appetizers come in both solid and liquid form, the latter called aperitifs. Traditionally these are wine-based, but in actuality some cocktails qualify. What's operative is that the drink is dry or semidry; bitterness arouses hunger while sweetness dulls it. Thus certain hard-liquor cocktails containing quinine or bitters (various spirits infused with tropical herbs, spices, and plant or bark extracts) can serve as appetizers.
At Bahía, an outdoor tapas lounge on the Four Seasons Hotel's seventh-floor terrace (if a waterfall-highlighted expanse nearly the size of a small farm can be called a terrace), cocktails are definitely formidable. A margarita contained enough high-quality tequila (Patrón Silver, 100 percent agave and about the smoothest "young" tequila around) to be well worth its hefty $12 price tag. Two fellow writers and I were ready to jump, fully clothed, into the rooftop's pool after just one, proof of a darned good margarita; professional journalists usually require at least three. Use of a sour mix instead of plain limes did make the drink too sweet for me (like Bahía's live Latin band, its cocktails seemed geared to Hispanic tastes), but it was still refreshing enough to qualify as a liquid appetizer. A "caipiroska" (vodka, fresh strawberries, and lots of sugar) was more a liquid dessert. Mojitos had a hefty sugar content too.
According to the most popular story, tapas developed from an old Spanish bar custom of placing a saucer on top of wine glasses to keep flies out. A barkeeper decided to put a few olives on the saucer, and from that simple astringent appetizer, things escalated to today's tapas, a few saucers of which can serve as a full light meal. At Bahía, aceitunas variedades (assorted olives, $3) is one of a dozen choices, but so are some of the more filling plates that keep Spaniards going till that country's typical dinner time of 10:00 p.m. to midnight.
The only disappointment was pimientos del piquillo rellenos de bacalao ($9). Served on toasted baguette slices, the peppers lacked the piquillo's customary sweet complexity, and the dried cod was very dry. A mousselike preparation would've been more appealing, and Bahía's ability to whip up just such a thing was demonstrated by croquetas de marisco ($8), creamy smooth and studded with lobster. Ham or spinach croquettes are also available.
About half the plates were suitable for low-carb eaters, among them boquerones en vinagre ($8). Forget about those skinny, salt-imbued canned strips; these larger, almost sardine-size fillets were fresh white anchovies, slightly pickled and served marinated in a little olive oil and garlic. Endibias con cabrales ($6) came with not just endives but a bunch of grapes that echoed the subtle fruity accents of the Asturian blue cheese, and complemented its black-walnut hints. As "South Beach Diet" practitioners know, cheese appeases appetite rather than arousing it. But it'd be unthinkable to miss patatas aioli ($5) -- the garlicky mayonnaise assertive, the chunks of new potatoes a reminder of just how tasty this plebian starch can be when cooked respectfully so that not just cooking oil but its own flavor dominates. So order your next mojito with a few splashes of Angostura bitters instead of sugar, and !buen provecho!