Author: Wines from Spain/©ICEX.
Spanish cuisine, wine included, has enjoyed moments of glory in the UK capital for a long time. In many cases, this phenomenon involves businesses that started up years ago and have, over the years, gradually carved a niche on the diverse and competitive London market, which boasts restaurants representing over a hundred countries. Abel Lusa arrived in London in 1993 and since then has managed to build a solid group of Spanish restaurants with which he has conquered London palates thanks to fine Spanish cuisine and first-rate quality products.
In the early 90s, after studying catering in his homeland, La Rioja, Abel Lusa worked in various Madrid restaurants including El Amparo, one of the most famous establishments in the Spanish capital. Once in London, and after forging a career in various establishments, he built up and opened Cambio de Tercio from scratch. “My business partner and I had hardly any savings between us, and the bank wouldn’t give us a loan; so we bought second-hand kitchen equipment and plunged in at the deep end, with simple meals and tapas”, Lusa explained.
At that particular moment in time, Spanish cuisine had very little representation on the London restaurant scene; however Cambio de Tercio, with a focus on traditional recipes and a touch of avant-garde, began to carve itself a niche. Now, the restaurant is the group’s flagship and has incorporated allusions to new trends and techniques in gastronomy to its menu. The restaurant offers a tasting menu which changes every week and includes 500 different Spanish wines. In addition, the premises has just been expanded in order to accommodate more tables.
Tendido Cero, opened in 2002, is a traditional tapas bar (“although made to our own specifications”), with a waiting list for bookings. Tendido Cuatro, opened four years ago, offers mainly fish and griddled sea-food, barbecue grilled meat, and above all, rice dishes and paellas. And last but not least, Capote y Toros is a ‘ham & Sherry bar’, an authentic Andalusia tavern, with an impressive list of Sherries (120 in total, of which 55 are served by the glass) as well as live flamenco performances.
Reviews in the press have left no doubts as to the success reaped by the group. According to The Independent, “Cambio de Tercio is the best Spanish restaurant in London”. Matthew Norman, restaurant reviewer for The Telegraph, stated in 2010 that: “I’ve never had a better lunch in this country”. And the Squaremeal.co.uk website published that “Efficient Spanish staff greet newcomers like regulars and treat regulars as part of the family”.
The focus on bull fighting, both in the names of the establishments and the décor, is on account of Abel Lusa’s passion for the subject and the positive approval the idea received when the venture was launched. However, the Rioja businessman is keen to point out that: “it’s not the typical clichéd type of décor; we try to adhere to good taste and only display works created by renowned artists from the bull fighting scene”.
Abel Lusa recognises that the success of his establishments has contributed to the fact that now many more British tourists visit Spain with prior knowledge of Spanish cuisine — especially tapas and rice dishes — as well as Spanish wines, “although, unfortunately, many times what they find at holiday resorts doesn’t really represent the best in Spanish cuisine”, he stated. Adding that: “Part of our success has to do with our focus on modern cuisine based around quality products; something which consumers still don’t really associate with Spain”. In addition, the fact that the establishments are located in the busy London borough of Chelsea has also helped, as “our regular customers are people who travel a lot, who are familiar with good hotels and restaurants, are open-minded and put themselves in our hands without worrying that what they are about to eat might not be traditional”.
As regards wines, Abel Lusa believes that Rioja is still the most well-known Spanish region in the UK, although Albariños from Rías Baixas are also making a deep impression. “We strive to offer a wide range of wines, and in fact we have always been known for our extensive wine list, which offers all the classic wines from Spain as well as promoting the latest wines on the market. We get sent new wine samples every week from Spain”, he explained.
The question of Sherry is somewhat unique. Aside from the traditional form of Sherry drinking in the UK, wine journalists are stirring up a lot of interest in the subject and consumers are desperate to find out more. Abel admits that: “Sherries need to be explained in order to understand them. At Capote y Toros we get a lot of people who don’t really have a clue but who have heard a lot about them, as well as real experts who are looking for something new”.
Abel is very aware of the importance of wine in a good restaurant. The wine list at ‘Cambio de Tercio’ includes wines from almost every single Spanish DO. Many of the Sherries and a selection of reds, whites and Cavas are served by the glass.
In fact, Abel Lusa was recently named a Caballero de la Gran Orden del Vino (Knight of the Noble Order of Spanish Wine Knights), which recognises his role in promoting the quality and diversity of Spanish wines in the UK. “I wasn’t expecting it but it’s been a source of great satisfaction for me. It’s logical that individuals from the hospitality sector have started to be recognised by the Order. At the end of the day we are the last and very necessary link in the chain”, he stated.
Video: Spanish Gastronomy in London.