Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tapas Bravas

33 Charlotte Steet
(Entrance on Rathbone Street)
LondonW1T 1RR
Tel: +44 (0) 78138010

One of the things I missed staying in Singapore is finding a good Spanish tapas restaurant. Honestly speaking, Spanish food in Singapore sucks because we lack of a proliferation of Spanish restaurants unlike Italian. The so called Spanish restaurants in Singapore are not really true to their cuisine and authentic in tastes as getting Spanish ingredients from Spain like their peppers, cheeses, ham and condiments are still very much restricted by the local AVA who determines what Singaporeans can and can’t eat. Just imagine we can’t even find smoked paprika here which is an essential spice in Spanish cooking. Importers are not keen to bring in Spanish ingredients other than olive oils as the demand is not strong enough. As a result, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of Spanish Cuisine as it is not so widely appreciated here unlike Italian foods. Ironically, Spanish cuisine does have many close resemblances to Italian foods in terms of taste and ingredients used. Having spent three summers cooking in Mallorca and Ibza previously during the course of work have helped me able to open up to a window of Spanish cuisine knowledge to the different regions of this wonderful country. From Balearic Islands to the Iberian Culture and Basque country favourites, Spanish foods are very much down to earth, homely and simple yet they deliver robust flavours, vibrant colours and variety.

Though we did not visit Spain during our last trip to Europe, we did checkout some Spanish tapas restaurants in London during our time there. Some of the better tapas restaurants outside of Spain can be found here in London as they are able produce dishes similar to what I have tasted during my time in Mallorca. The two best Spanish tapas restaurants in London that N and I tasted are Fino and Salt Yard (In the next story). Both restaurants have their own merits in terms of menus and decor.

It wasn’t easy to find this place as it was an underground restaurant with its entrance on an adjacent street to its published address. Down through the stairs, you arrive on to a contemporary designed dinning room with soft Spanish Flamingo music on the background. Slightly more up market with a more sophisticated clientele, Fino’s menu is entirely dedicated to tapas style dishes, Spanish wines and special in house cocktails. Head Chef, Jean Philippe Patruno, who trained at the 3 Michelin Star Chez Nico helms the kitchen with contributions from the restaurant owners, a pair of brothers who are well known hispanophiles, due to their love of Spanish food and upbringing in the restaurant industry. The tapas menu is extensive from bar nibbles, starters, meat seafoods, cold cuts, cheese and snacks. There are also staples and salads that provide substance to make the meal more complete.
My wife N had the Fino Cocktail and we ordered the Toasted Almonds to nibble with. Lightly salted to compliment the natural sweetness and fragrance of the roasted Mallorca almonds, it went well with the cocktail that had vodka, crushed mint leaves and lemon. Mallorcan almonds differ from that of the Californian ones with a rounder shape and a more nutty fragrance. It is used extensively in Balearic cooking to thicken sauces and in pastries.

I have always loved Manchego Cheese since my first bite in Mallorca. This is a must have when you are at a tapas bar and we took on a platter. Though it was a first experience for my wife N, like me fell instantly in love with it too. Made with ewes milk, we love Manchego cheese for its slightly salty taste, nutty flavours and slight acidity. It does not have a unpleasant pungent aroma but has buttery creamy notes especially those that are still relative young. It can be appreciated in its own form or used like Parmesan in baking and toppings. Our order came in nicely sliced triangles with the black rind already trimmed off. Accompanying the cheese slices was sticks of apricot jam that had been cooked to a gummy like thickness whereby upon setting, it could be cut into sticks and served. Alternating between sweet and salty flavours, we enjoyed nibbling the cheese and apricot jam in small bites and letting its creamy nutty flavours run around our mouths with a lingering savoury aftertaste.

Between us, we also shared Half a Roast Chicken with Romesco sauce. The lovingly roasted capon resembling an slightly oversized spring chicken was flavoured with herbs like rosemary which has natural affinity for poultry. It was done very well with the meat still juicy and tender. Romesco sauce which can be considered as one of Spain’s national sauces provided a great enhancement to the roasted bird with its slightly tangy smoky character. It is made with charred red bell peppers blended with quality extra virgin olive oil, garlic, toasted walnuts, stale bread, red wine vinegar and most important of all Spanish smoked paprika. It brought out the best of the bird with its aioli like thickness and smoky aromas.
A classical dish in most tapas restaurant is Pulpo a la Gallega or literally translated as Boiled Octopus with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Smoked Paprika and Fleur De Sel (Sea Salt Flakes). Fresh octopus is boiled for a few hours to tenderise its tentacles. It is then sliced thinly onto a plate, drizzled with a good quality olive oil and sprinkled with smoked paprika and sea salt flakes. The tender sliced octopus had a slight Umami flavour which I like and the flavours are so simple and clean.
Gambas al Ajillo are another of my favourites though there can be more than one variation of preparation with different chefs. Basically it is about fresh shrimps cooked in olive oil with garlic parsley, chilli and piquillo peppers, which are the Spanish equivalent of cayenne peppers. Fino’s version was whole fresh shrimps sautéed in olive oil, garlic and chillies. Personally I would prefer a version cooked Mallorcan style with the shrimps cooked in excess garlic and chilli infused olive oil. Thereafter, you can dip pieces of bread into the fragrant oil and eat it with the shrimps. As Fino’s version did not come with the extra oil, I felt a little disappointed but the freshness of the shrimps made up for it. In end we still enjoyed peeling those shrimps and eating it with the remnants of the sautéed garlic and chillies.

Still on seafood. not to be missed are the Tuna Skewers with Guacamole. Simple clean flavours of pan seared skewered fresh tuna chunks are pair with a lovely smooth rich buttery guacamole. The result is a composition of palate sensations reflecting the harmony between fish and fruit, raw yet cooked.

From a country who loves the taste of pork, Spain produces one of the worlds finest bred of pigs, the Iberian Black Pig which is a distant relative of the Japanese Kurobuta. From this bred of pig comes two famous Spanish sausages, Chorizo and Morcilla. Chorizos are made from fresh pork spiced with smoked paprika while the blood of the pig goes into the making of morcilla sausages. By far, Morcilla sausages are harder to come by due to limited production but it is always appreciated in tapas bars sliced and lightly sautéed before going on as a topping with crusty bread. The saltish, smoky and fatty flavours of the sausage is a great accompaniment for drinks especially beer and sangrias.

No as meal is really complete without a taste of Tortilla Espanola. Basically a thick omelette filled with sautéed onions and potatoes, we opted for a version with Chorizo instead. The cute little round omelette came with a generous topping of diced chorizo sausages and a decent amount in between the omelette. Fried to a golden brown colour with delicious aromas, it was paired with a fragrant home made aioli on crusty bread, a combination of simplicity and sheer pleasure washed down with beer.

Desserts saw me opting for traditional Crema Catalana and N going for a flight of home made ice creams flavours like coffee, rum and raisins with amaretto and sweet Don Pedro Ximenez. The crema catalana is the Spanish version of caramel custard except the custard is denser and sweeter with the addition of condensed milk. Besides vanilla, it also has orange zest added in and it is served just like caramel custard. A generous portion, I love the taste of the rich creamy custard spiked with specks of orange zests giving it burst of citrus flavours on the palate. Meanwhile, the flight of ice creams was also driving N up to a new peak of sensational highs. The home made ice creams with their respective liquer flavours easily makes one succumb to such indulgence that can only be conceptualised by a pastry genius.

I have since picked up their new launched cookbook and have been looking into it for new inspirations for the menus of my next series of cooking workshops later in the year.

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