Temptation, Treason & Tapas

May 30, 2006

For someone who would much rather have a nose around a farmers market than a department store, tapas are exciting beyond belief.  I get as wide-eyed over a plate of three manchegos as some women might get at the sight of a stack of Manolos.

Tapas are the culinary equivalent of a shopping spree: you really only grasp the damage once you’ve tallied up the individual prices and get home with a lot of extra weight.  I tried to explain this to a date once.  “Come on,” he pressed, “If you had a lot more disposable income you’d get the shoes, too.”  Hmm, no, not really.  I’d just get myself to Italy more often.  For mozzarella.  Undoubtedly, tapas trumps shopping any day.  Unlike the later, you never really know how much you’ve consumed.  Sadly, you can’t really return anything, either.

And is there a more Bacchanalian cuisine than tapas?  It all depends on the participants involved.  If you do it right, the seemingly incessant stream of bite-sized flavors, colors, and textures demands an equal outpouring of red and white.  Of course, half of the allure is in the communal nature of it. It was bank holiday weekend.  I was booking a table for ten.  Seven women, three men.  All single.  Clearly that higher men-to-women ratio was not operating here.

Choosing the cuisine was easy.  But was I going to remain faithful to my beloved Navarro’s, or stray somewhere new?

Navarro’s on Charlotte Street has been a steady on the top tapas list since 1997.  It’s old-fashioned and festive in the kind of way you expect Spanish restaurants to be.  It knows how to push all the right buttons with satisfying classics like champiñones al ajillo (mushrooms in garlic and rosemary) and bacalao a la roteña (stewed cod).  The voluptuous Navajas Tinto Crianza 2002 (Rioja) is alone worth a rendez-vous.

But there was another place just down the road I had stolen more than an occasional glance at.  Fino.  Standing there like a smug stud since it first crashed the tapas scene in 2003 with its swank cocktail bar and basement restaurant, it seemed everybody wanted a piece of Fino’s “modern” tapas.  And so did I.

We staggered the men around the table; and, already slightly light headed from the sugary cocktails, I had the delicious task of ordering.  I asked if there were any special requests.  Then I ran down the menu, asking for two of this and three of that, whipping out my Spanish for effect.

We got off to a fumbling start with a tellingly and sanguine-less sangria: high on sugar, lacking in body. We switched to wine.  Soon the food made us forget the initial awkwardness.  Queen scallops arrived on rows of Botticelli shells resting atop salt dunes as if offered by Venus herself.  The usual patatas bravas were reincarnated here as thick garlicky sticks with a side of hot sauce.  The cod showed up in the form of breaded, round croquettes and tartar dip.  Tortillas (omelettes) were stuffed with either spinach or chorizo.  Hands criss-crossed as more than two-dozen plates danced over the table.  There is something about eating with a group that infuses the experience with a devil-may-care attitude.

And so onto dessert.

Now this had become a rampant affair.  And if it was going to be new, hell, it was going to be different.  Out went the traditional flan and crema catalana.  “A round of white and dark chocolate shots!” someone yelled.  The lack of restraint was contagious as the last course appeared. Spoons floated in flights of both ceremony and deliriousness over the plates, dipping into the warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream here, and then the stack of sugar-dusted donuts there, before the raspberry shortcake was thrust into the centre of the table, punctuated by restrained sips of the layered liquid chocolate and more copious ones of the dessert wine.

I’ve no regrets, but perhaps I should have concentrated more on the fondant.  A good fondant gets me every time.  There it is, looking so handsome and composed.  But give it a good poke, and the real substance of it starts to unravel.

I woke up the next morning with neither a hangover nor a shred of guilt.  Modern love, or old-fashioned romance?  When it comes to tapas, you don’t have to choose.

Tortilla Española for Two
Adapted from my Aunt Carmela

2 medium roasting potatoes
Olive oil
A good pat of butter
1 small onion
6 medium organic, free-range eggs
A bunch of flat-leaf parsley, stemmed and finely chopped
Maldon Sea Salt
Black pepper for grinding

Scrub and cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch pieces. Place in a roasting pan, toss with enough olive oil to lightly coat, and spread in a single layer.  Bake at 200C/400F until golden, about 40 minutes, stirring halfway through so they don’t stick.  Meanwhile, put the butter in a heavy 8-inch skillet and turn the heat to medium-low.

Peel, halve, and slice the onion, then add it to the pan when the butter melts.  Cook, stirring frequently, until translucent and just starting to color, about 10 minutes.  In a bowl, lightly scramble the eggs with the parsley, salt, and generous grindings of black pepper.  Add the potatoes to the onions, stir, and cook for another minute.  Pour in the egg mixture and turn the heat up to medium.

As it starts to cook, use a spatula to gently coax the sides of the omelette toward the center of the pan, allowing the uncooked egg to run down the sides and into the bottom.  Cook until mostly set.  Pop the whole pan under the broiler and grill until the top is nicely golden. Keep a close eye on it; if the edges start to act like a soufflé, press them down with a spatula. Cool slightly, flip onto a plate, and cut into wedges.  Serve with slices of creamy avocado, a jug of good sangria, and a clean conscience.