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Published May 21st 2012
It was a frosty night in Middle Park.
I had purchased a 9-course degustation of Spanish tapas for 2 while testing out online discount vouchers available on various coupon sites a couple of weeks ago. The tableau in tram 96 hustling towards St Kilda reminded me of a lively and noisy tapas bar in Spain, with crowds of patrons standing at the bar counter and chirpy folks huddling around small tables.
Tonight, Melbourne was a hermosa mujer española waiting to be wooed.
I was glad to get out of the icy drizzle and into an externally unassuming restaurant called Santiago Tapas Restaurant and Bar on 14 Armstrong Street, operated by proprietor Michelle Milner. I was immediately met with heated warmth and the romantic strumming of a guitar. Not quite the typical raucous tapas bar of Lavapies in Madrid or Barri Gotic in Barcelona with patrons munching, drinking and socialising. Then again, I was there at 6.30pm and the real action in Spanish tapas bars happens only after 9.00pm.
For the uninitiated friends, I'm not talking about one of the disciplines of yoga that means to burn or heat although I might need some of that to expend all the calories from the meal.
The word "tapas" comes from the Spanish verb tapar, which means "to cover". The word on the street is barmen used to serve a glass of wine covered with a slice of bread or pork in the early years of Spain.
Tapas in Barcelona by Elemaki (Wikimedia Commons)
Reference of this practice was the sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns who covered their glasses between sips to keep away the fruit flies. Depending on which street you're hanging out at, some believe the tapas tradition began when the Spanish king Alfonso X of Castile ordered all taverns to serve wine accompanied by a small snack or "tapa". Still some amigos say that these snacks kept the energy levels of labourers and farmers up between the main meals of the day.
San Sebastian Bar by Gordito1869 (Wikimedia Commons)
Regardless of the origin, tapas are uniquely Spanish in culinary tradition. Usually bite-size pieces of food or toothpick appetizers served in most bars in Spain, they are analogous to canapés and hors d'oeuvres. With the largest number of bars per capita of any country in the world, Spaniards definitely need a little tapas to wash all that wine and beer down.
With the niceties of seating and introductions completed, I could sit back and admire the whole length of the restaurant interiors from a well-positioned table. Bathed in warm light and cosy for 40 covers, the restaurant exuded a romantic charm untypical of Spanish tapas bars.
Michelle informed me that she had been behind this quaint establishment since March 2006. She travelled extensively through Europe in her early 20s in a Volkswagen Combi van but she was very drawn to the Spanish way of life, with tapas at the very heart of its culture and style of eating. She really liked sharing a range of different dishes, flavours and textures in one meal sitting and the tapas way of eating became the inspiration behind her starting the restaurant and bringing Spanish cuisine to fellow Aussies.
Tapas bars in Spain are noisy food and drink establishments littered with food debris and serviettes, and the television blaring soccer games, sitcoms, game shows and bullfights as patrons tango from bar to bar picking at local delicacies. It is essentially a style of eating that equates sociability, friends and family.
Catering more for locals and couples in their 30-50s, Michelle designed the restaurant to deliver a romantic experience of Spain through its décor of Spanish paraphernalia around the walls and importantly, the food. If you like eating your tapas standing up, there's still the quintessential barra (counter). I prefer sitting at the mesa (table) or the terraza (outdoor table) if it was a balmy evening.
In the really old-fashioned bars back in Spain, a tapa comes complimentary with a drink. Depending on the region and bar, you can sample common tapas with Manzanillo or Arbequina olives, Serrano ham, mussels, meatballs, egg omelettes, squid, fried potato wedges and snails to exotic delicacies like rabbit, wild boar and sparrows. They are usually flavoured with olive oil, lemon juice, white wine, onion, tomato paste, red and green peppers, paprika and saffron. Different types of breads are available to mop up any of the sauces.
I usually have tapas by whim of sight and smell, free of any structured course or progression and accompanied by the spontaneity and camaraderie often associated with the tapas tradition of Spain. Tonight I was embarking on a wine-paired Degustación de Aventura led by the daily whim of the Chef to get a taste of Santiago's Spain.
Born in Colombia, Chef Cesar Abel Riascos Astorquiza moved in 2007 to Malagá in the south of Spain to further his Spanish cuisine knowledge before applying his culinary skills to the kitchen in Santiago Tapas Bar. His passion is to create dishes combining traditional Spanish cuisine with modern techniques. I was looking forward to sample his styling of traditional tapas and with the first course in sight, I was ready for some gastronomic flamenco. Buen Provecho!
1) The crusty house-baked toast with the Chef's daily choice of toppings was a bite-sized walnut brown oatcake topped with piquillo aioli, dried chilli shrimp and confit tomato (Montadito del Dia). The sweetness from the shrimp and tomato blended well with the light spicy aioli and slight crunch of the wafer.
2) Next up was Gazpacho. Your classic Gazpacho is a chilled soup of water-like consistency with the primary ingredients of ripe tomatoes, onion, garlic, cucumber and peppers. Chef Cesar presented a velvety textured tomato soup perhaps inspired by the Salmorejo typical of southern Spain but with finely diced cucumbers, red peppers, fresh herbs and a boiled quail egg on the side.
3) A media-racion or half dinner plate sized portion of fried calamari rings (Calamar) served with squid ink aioli and lemon wedges was the third in line. They were deliciously tender on the inside but too heavily fried and salted on the outside for my taste. The centre of attraction for me was the creative use of the creamy pitch black sauce with a slight iodized flavour, which reminded me of squid cooked in its own ink in northern Spain.
4) Croquettes (Croquetas Caseras del Dia con Salsa de Romesco) made its way to my table after Chef Cesar whipped up a creamy filling of pork and fennel crumbed and golden fried to perfection on Romesco sauce. It immediately connoted the English Berkshire hand-made pork and fennel sausages I tasted some years back. Romesco sauce originates from north-eastern region of Spain where the fishermen of Tarragona used it to accompany fish. Although I was surprised to see it applied to the croquettes, the rich creamy sauce of roasted red peppers balanced the moist bite of pork and slight licorice of fennel.
5) As I drank the double salty fried aftertaste from my palate, a breadcrumbed dish I recognised from the southern Spanish city of Cordoba (Flamenquines Cordobeses) appeared. A favourite of the city's residents, this breaded and then deep-fried cigar shaped specialty traditionally consisted of long pieces of Serrano ham wrapped in pork loin and served with mayonnaise. In this finer adaptation, a lighter and fruitier orange and mint sauce cut through the saltiness of the house-made chorizo and manchego cheese centre.
6) After two courses of pork, my eyes smiled at the sight of octopus on a yellow capsicum and green olive base drizzled with an orange, mint and crushed almond sauce (Pulpo Malagueño). Twice cooked, those bite-sized morsels of tentacles were juicy and tender to the bite. My palate would welcome switching the order of flavours and textures between courses 5 and 6.
7) Any Spanish tapas meal would not be complete without the classic deep fried potato cubes (Patatas Bravas). The accompanying topping of tomato salsa is typical of the city of Burgos and the garlic aioli lent a certain spicy bite. Unfortunately I could not fully enjoy the crispy potato shells containing soft powdery flesh having reached my threshold of salty deep fried tapas.
8) The moist and juicy flavour of lamb cutlet (Cordero de la Sierra) kissed by smoked and fire awoke my taste buds. The grilling mellowed the gamy character of the lamb and the resultant sweet flavour married well with the fresh coriander vinaigrette and saffron couscous.
9) To close a hearty meal spanning 3 hours, I was greeted by one of the national foods of Spain, the Churros. Said to be developed by shepherds as an open fire, pan-cooked substitute for freshly oven baked bread in the mountains, Chef Cesar's Spanish fried dough pastry sticks were served traditionally dusted in cinnamon with a rich and warm chocolate dipping sauce.
Images of Spain in the back section of the restaurant
Working through the nine courses, I could see Chef Cesar's passion for his tapas from the amount of thought he applied to the individual recipes and the level of attention in styling. His stint in Spain taught him the valuable lesson of making each dish a complete experience and reinforced his belief that the intense flavours of Spanish cuisine had an important role in the global kitchen.
Drawing from his Colombian heritage where gastronomy is a mix between Spanish and indigenous flavours, he had taken inspiration from various different regions in Spain and combined fundamental Spanish techniques and flavours, with creativity around ingredients to make some of the tapas his own. The evidence is simply in his food. Where appropriate, he has taken the culinary liberty to modify some recipes to suit his Australian customers. And he also took on my criticisms about some of his dishes. Here's a chef who understands that the restaurant business is all about satisfying customers.
Although the service was polite and attentive, the hustle between kitchen and waiting on tables took on a discordant rhythm. Food arrived hurriedly at certain times leaving nearly no time for licking my lips (and fingers), digestion and ample education of the dish before me. I'm glad Michelle took some action to adjust the pace after the first few speedy courses.
The combination of good food and service makes Santiago Tapas Bar a revisit in the feed book of Lionel's Melbourne. As no two palates are the same, you may experience the smells, tastes and textures of the tapas differently from mine. If I had a rating of plates, forks or spoons, I would give it 4 out of 5 with minor improvements to the front of house and sequencing of fried dishes in the degustation menu.
Since there was no need to ask for la cuenta (the bill) as I had already prepaid for the meal, I bid the restaurant buenas noches and headed out into the cold, all the while dreaming of balmy days and warm nights filled with music, laughter, romance, delicious tapas and a beautiful dark eyed lady.