Pop-in Posh Food
Tapaç24 gastrobar in Barcelona, owned by chef Carles Abellan. Photo by: ©Comerç24
Author: Rodrigo García Fernández/©ICEX
Tapas are back in the limelight again. Not that they were ever really out of it: it’s just that they have recently been thrown into sharper focus by the emergence of the “gastrobar” phenomenon. Gastrobars are tapas bars with a difference. Masterminded by some of Spain’s top chefs, they combine tradition and innovation to create a whole new take on tapas: top cooking and attentive service in an informal setting and at everyday prices. In short, pop-in posh food.
Patatas bravas, ensaladilla rusa, croquetas, anchoas, boquerones … these are just a few examples of tapas you are sure to find in bars all over Spain. So what can be said about them that hasn’t been said before? Critics, cooks and consumers seem united in declaring tapas a particularly Spanish approach to eating out – informally, among friends, and for the pure pleasure of it all.
So far, so familiar, but in the last few years tapas have acquired powerful champions in the form of Spain’s avant garde chefs for whom tapas represent another outlet for creative expression: capitalizing on the fact that that they are so intrinsic a part of Spain’s culinary heritage, they are using them as a way of making top flight gastronomy accessible to the eating public at large. Over the last five years or so, many chefs (all of Michelin Red Guide standard) have adopted a new approach, channeling their haute cuisine skills and experience – and their carefully sourced raw materials - into the traditional world of tapas.
Gastronomic critic José Carlos Capel is credited with coining the term ‘gastrobar’, which seems to be the label most often used in food circles. He was also the first to catalogue certain basic features this new phenomenon: they are owned or set up by prestigious chefs; they serve a ‘gastronomic’ menu composed of tapas or small helpings; they charge reasonable prices; service is attentive but informal. However, gastrobars have demonstrated how borrowing small details from top level restaurants can send out subtle messages that differentiate them from run-of-the-mill tapas bars. Good glassware, attentive service, an interesting wine list (many sell by the glass at good value for money prices) and imaginative tapas are just some of the little things that mean a lot.
The Mediterranean connection
The gastrobar was already up and running as a business model well before Capel coined the term. One of the first chefs to make the leap from haute cuisine to tapas bar was Albert Adrià , brother of Ferran of elBulli fame. He opened Inopia (on the edge of Barcelona’s lively El Raval district) in 2006, an obvious tribute to Spain’s tapas tradition.
In February 2009, Albert announced that he was leaving elBulli (where he had been creative director for many years) to devote himself full time to his tapas bar. He left also Inopia and worked during months in a new proyect, Tickets, openedn in March 2011. Tapas signed by Albert & Ferran Adrià and cocktails all the day long.
Also in Barcelona, Carles Abellan (Michelin-star-holder at Comerç24 and chef at two other restaurants, Bravo24 and Velódromo) also recognized the potential in updating the traditional tapas bar long time ago, in 2006. Beyond its modest entrance is a long bar at which customers seated on stools sample the tapas for which it has become famous: ensaladilla rusa (diced potato and other vegetables in mayonnaise), callos (stewed beef tripe), albóndigas (meat balls), calamares rellenos (stuffed squid).... It is not unusual to see would-be customers waiting outside in the street waiting for a place at the bar in what has become one of Barcelona’s most popular destinations with locals and tourists alike.
Another pioneer of the gastrobar movement is La Taberna del Gourmet, again in a Mediterranean location albeit rather further south, in Alicante. In 2003, chef María José San Román (of Michelin-starred Monastrell restaurant) and her daughter, Geni Perramón, started exploring the possibility of setting up “a tapas bar serving top quality products.”
The minute you enter La Taberna del Gourmet you notice the attention given to prime materials. Behind the bar, waiters can be seen making up tapas, slicing a splendid pure acorn-fed Ibérico ham by hand, and rustling up an Alicante-style salad out of nothing-but-the-best ingredients (tomato, dried salted tuna, grey mullet roe, chunks of artichoke, marinated olives, extra virgin olive oil and salt). Everything on the menu looks so delicious that one ends up dithering.
Posh food for all
All the cooks and food pundits consulted while preparing this article were unanimous in identifying “democratization of haute cuisine” (to quote Paco Roncero) as one reason why the new gastrobars are doing so well. Roncero opened Estado Puro - Madrid’s first gastrobar – just two years ago. The launch in April 2011 of a second Estado Puro (also in Madrid - both are located in hotels in the NH chain) so soon after the first is a clear indicator of how well it has been doing.
“We apply our haute cuisine know-how to running a tapas bar, creating a hybrid product that encourages the public to try new gastronomic experiences”, declares Roncero.
Paco Roncero is not the only big name chef to combine top flight restaurant skills with a tapas bar in the Spanish capital. Having won two Michelin stars in his Madrid restaurant, Sergi Arola also opened an informal alternative where customers can sit at the bar and sample the tapas while enjoying a front-row view of the fascinating spectacle of cooks at work.
Sergi Arola gave an added twist to the gastrobar concept when he opened Le Cabrera in 2008, where he combined an atmospheric tapas bar with a de luxe cocktail bar (managed by barman Diego Cabrera, a respected figure in his field). In his usual way, Arola appointed a member of his team to run the kitchen: Frenchman Benjamin Bensoussan, whose professional career has been spent largely working alongside him, first at La Broche and later at Arola Gastro.
Bensoussan, another devotee of top quality products, monitors absolutely everything that comes into Le Cabrera’s kitchen. “Wild mushrooms, artichokes, asparagus and Tudela lettuce hearts are delivered to me every week by Rafa, a young market gardener from Navarra”, he informs us. He gets his tomatoes directly from market gardens in inland Mallorca, razor clams from Galicia, and extra virgin olive oil is conspicuously present in his kitchen. In march 2011 Le Cabrera opened a second venue in Madrid, in Casa de América.
A little bit later, April 2011, Arola announced that he was leaving Le Cabrera project in order to prepare a new gastrobar launch in Madrid, called Vi Cool.
Eating at the bar
In Spain, it has always been the custom to go from bar to bar for one’s tapas, following a kind of pilgrimage route punctuated by glasses of wine and little snacks - savory morsels on sticks, one’s share of a helping of the house specialty…. These days, that pattern is paralleled by another, which still involves eating at the bar, but in this case comfortably seated on a chair or stool.
Le Cabrera is one example of this new pattern, as is La Moraga Banús, one of the gastrobars masterminded by Dani García (of one-Michelin-star Calima restaurant in Marbella). The La Moraga project is one of the most ambitious of the new arrivals, both for the number of establishments involved and for its international aspirations.
It all began in Malaga in 2008, when Dani García opened La Moraga, an up-to-date, modern tapas bar in the historic quarter of town – right in the epicenter of traditional tapas territory. “People who knew me associated me with the luxury and elitism attached to an haute cuisine restaurant, but I wanted to reach a wider public and to do so through tapas.” Dani decided to model his first tapas restaurant on the traditional bar at which customers eat standing up, just like all the other tapas destinations in town.
His croquetas de pringá (croquettes made with the belly pork, chorizo and blood sausage from a traditional cocido stew), flamenquines (slices of serrano cured ham wrapped around pork loin, breadcrumbed and fried), and gazpacho de cerezas (cold cherry and tomato soup) were soon a huge success among a public avid for new gastronomic treats; the second Moraga followed, this time in Puerto Banús, Marbella and later on other Moragas in Málaga Airport, Marbella El Corte Inglés Shopping Center, Córdoba, Fuengirola, and Madrid Goya El Corte Inglés Shopping Center.
The hybrid formula that characterizes the new generation of tapas bars is a good way of overcoming the dread that posh restaurants can induce in some people, as noted by Dani García. Indeed, gastrobar customers sometimes transfer their custom to their famous chef’s ‘proper’ restaurant. Alejandro García is a young chef from Andalusia and owner of the one-Michelin-star Alejandro restaurant in Roquetas de Mar, Almería, and of a taberna called Bacus.
He is well aware of the opportunity this represents: “The informal bar and tables set-up at Bacus is perfect for someone who just wants a quick glass of wine and a pincho. Another day he might have a go at a couple of mini-raciones (small helpings) of tapas and, over time, gradually work up to staying for Bacus’ full dinner menu of tapas and mini-raciones.” Such a menu might include salmorejo (cold soup made with tomato, water, vinegar, bread, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper) served with mojama (dried salted tuna), a pork rib hamburger, or curried Ibérico pork cheek.
Alejandro García’s Taberna Bacus provides further proof that these auteur tapas bars need not be the exclusive preserve of big towns like Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga. In Asturias, the Loya family has injected extra verve into Gijón’s tapas scene with the opening of its restaurant-cum-tapas bar Avant-Garde, located within an hotel very close to San Lorenzo beach. The Loyas are the proprietors of the much lauded one-Michelin-star Balneario de Salinas restaurant in Avilés, and of the Deloya in the Asturian capital, Oviedo.
The local cuisine closely reflects the top quality products obtained from the sea and from inland Asturias – examples include bocadito de chorizo criollo (bite-sized tapa of local sausage), fritos de pixín (monkfish goujons) and mejillones escabechados (pickled mussels). A space that was barely paying its way was what spurred on Francis Paniego (of one-Michelin-star Restaurante El Portal de Echaurren in La Rioja) to create his own gastrobar, La Chimenea del Echaurren. “We redesigned what used to be the cafeteria of our hotel, the Echaurren, to create an informal venue with good service and affordable prices, with the added attraction of giving onto the plaza in front of the church in our village, Ezcaray.”
A return to tapas at their most traditional is represented by Koldo Royo. Having retained his Michelin star at his restaurant in Palma de Mallorca for nearly a decade, this Basque-born chef decided early this year on a change of direction. The result is Aquiara, a bar specializing in classic tapas and pinchos, also in Palma.
Spain’s top chefs are obviously determined to keep the tapas tradition alive and kicking, whether in the form we have always known and loved or in freer, more creative guise. As a result of this multidirectional approach, tapas are more popular than ever, confidently occupying their place in Spain’s gastronomic repertoire, past, present and future. Are you keeping up?
Rodrigo García Fernández is a journalist and memeber of editorial team of www.foodsfromspain.com