Spanish food seems to be all the rave at the Suzuki Night Market. Akin to a Spanish food invasion, familiars like sangria, paella, churros and sangria were in every other customer's hands at Queen Victoria Market's Summer event. Been a while since my indulgence at Santiago Tapas Restaurant in Middle Park and the nouveau-cuisine tapas at MoVida in Hosier lane. Thanks to a Groupon voucher offering 4 tapas, 2 paella and 2 jugs of sangria for 4, I ended up going espaņol in South Melbourne with some friends.
Our impression of Simply Spanish was simply a restaurant offering mass-market Aussie-Spanish cuisine. The place and atmosphere was nothing like the classic tapas bars of Grācia in Barcelona and the menu did not contain the local food commonly found across Spain. Instead the restaurant simply focused on Spanish dishes that were adapted to and popular with the Australian diner.
There was no missing the large quantities of orange coloured paella with meat and seafood being cooked in giant pans outside the restaurant next to its outdoor seating area. Like the roti canai performances of Mamak, Simply Spanish is exceptional at drawing the crowd with its live cooking station. The combination of colours and steamy fragrance from the ingredients cooking away in the giant paella pan is more than enough to stop traffic.
We decided to take one of the few indoor tables in the non-fuss modern contempory environment with touches of Spanish festive colors and mosaics. With the help of polite service from various waiting staff, we managed to order several tapas including the garlic prawns, fried goats cheese, pork belly, spanish chicken, mini empanadas and Spanish meat balls. Our choice of paella was the Valenciana.
The sangria arrived as 2 large jugs of rich burgundy red wine punch accompanied glasses containing some diced fruits. They were a good way to start the evening conversations while we waited for the dishes.
The stuffed bread parcels of beef and cheese appeared deep fried but was not oily. They were good sized and easy to eat out of hand. The filling was flavoursome without use of the accompanying salsa but I found the dough a tad dense. Likely they've been made ahead in batches and stored in the freezer to be cooked when ordered.
The Spanish meat balls were a blend of minced pork and beef cooked in rich sauce of chick peas, onions, peas and herbs. They were nicely browned and cooked through while remaining moist on the inside. We enjoyed the combined flavours more than those of the Meatball Company at the Luna 1878 festival.
The crispy skin pork belly on a bed of apple puree was excellent. We enjoyed the combined layered taste of crispy, meaty and fatty all in one bite, reminisce of the crispy pork belly I had at Hotel Windsor during the Look.Stop.Taste festival. We wished there were 4 portions instead of the 2 to share.
The "cazuela" or stew pot in Spanish promised pieces of chicken cooked with paprika, garlic and tomatoes in a shallow terra cotta clay pot with straight sides. The chicken thighs were tender but lacked the resultant flavour from cazuela slow cooking. The chicken did not absorb any of the spices. It was more likely cooked in a pan and transferred to the terra cotta pot.
Balls of goat cheese, lightly floured and fried brown on all sides accompanied by caramelised onions were an excellent combination of salty and sweet. Unlike some of the tempura-looking versions, these reminded of the delicious croquettes I had at Caboose Canteen. It was worth the extra order.
We also ordered an extra serving of garlic prawns sizzled with crush garlic, olive oil and chilli or "gambas al ajillo", an all-time tapas favourite. The prawns were the frozen, crunchy, not-so-sweet kind but we enjoyed dipping the side of crusty bread into the generous garlic prawn flavoured oil.
After 30 minutes of slow cooking, our steamy orange-coloured paella arrived, laden with blue mussels, prawns and chicken pieces. Often viewed by Australians as a national dish of Spain, paella is consider a regional Valencian dish by Spaniards and the Valencian version had a strict list of ingredients with meat being chicken or rabbit. What arrived was a mixed paella that combined the traditional with the seafood version, not typical of Valencia. Importantly the combined flavours of spices, meat and seafood were infused into our paella. Thumbs up for taste but the rice was too soft and the frozen mussels needed replacing.
The best part of the meal was our conversations about the state of Spanish food in Melbourne in a comfortable section of South Melbourne Market with reasonable standards of cooking and service. Simply Spanish was more representative of a fun and casual approach to dining with plenty of sangria and beer to wash down the paella and tapas, best suited to a night out with friends. With tables available for only 2 sittings at 6.30pm and 8.30pm, do not overstay your welcome.