The first time I encountered tapas, I was 6 and didn’t like them. My head was level with a huge wooden bar, and all I could see was a school of shiny silvery fish languishing near slices of bread. I’ve grown some since then; my head clears the bar most days. Meanwhile, tapas have become an international phenomenon.
Because every country I went to seemed to be offering some version of tapas or small plates, I decided to revisit the original and classic tapas of Spain and take stock of their evolution. I heard that, in Seville, young chefs were taking over ancient tapas bars and reinventing the recipes. Suddenly, “nouvelle tapas” — my term — was hip.
Curious and hungry, I headed to Seville, where my friend Shawn Hennessey, a food and wine expert crowned Tapas Queen in 2013 by the London Sunday Times, was leading tapas tours throughout the town.
Many of Seville’s traditional establishments haven’t changed much, Hennessey said, but others offer “modern, creative and innovative dishes,” she said. “It’s impossible to have just one favorite place. It all depends on the mood, the weather, and how hungry you are.”
It was sunny when I arrived, giddy and starving, in Seville. Thankfully, there was a tapas bar, El Disparate, inside my hotel in the Alameda, the old red-light district.
“Andalusia is the birthplace of tapas,” said Nacho Dargallo, chef and co-owner of El Disparate with his wife, Sandra Rodríguez. “But there’s been a tremendous evolution.”
In front of me, he placed what he called an ensaladilla rusa, a classic mix of mostly mayonnaise, potatoes, carrots and peas. Not a fan of mayonnaise, I didn’t expect much, but a marine whiff caught me by surprise: prawns. “I don’t interpret the old dishes,” the chef said. “They are perfect as they are. I just make my own.”
Dargallo confided that he had made a prawn oil with the heads and used it, coupled with sunflower oil, to whip up his mayo. He’d made a confit of prawns, dried and blended the shells, and used the powder as if it were salt. I was impressed.
When I heard that he had worked with Ferran Adrià’s team, things made more sense. Adrià is perhaps Spain’s most famous chef and is often referred as one of the most creative in the world. Here was a young chef who chose each ingredient as if his life depended on it.
Legend has it that people used a slice of bread or ham as a lid to cover a glass of wine and keep the flies away. The word “lid” translates as “tapa.” Soon, the word came to mean the food that went with the drink. Today, tapas can refer not only to the dish itself but also to the smallest size of a particular menu item that you can order. Some eateries offer the same specialty in three sizes: tapas, media ración (which is twice as big, about half a dish) and as a full dish known as a ración.
“Vamos a tapear,” Hennessey, my guide, said the next day — let’s go find tapas.
We started at La Brunilda Tapas, where goateed chef and owner Diego Caminos, a native of Buenos Aires, proclaimed: “Tapas, it’s all about sharing!” In the past, he explained, people had a slice of ham, perhaps a few olives and a beer. Today, he said, “the tapas bar is the new restaurant.”
Hennessey was fighting her addiction to what she had dubbed his crackburger, a mayo-soy umami marvel, but for the sake of research I ordered the classic croqueta al jamòn. I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of what looked like a simple fritter. Here again, I sensed a skillful, playful hand. The bechamel, studded with strong Iberico ham, was delicate in texture but punchy, the ubiquitous bread crumbs having been replaced with punkish panko.
“Tapas have evolved because diners have,” Caminos said. “They are more sophisticated and adventurous than ever.”
But at Lalola Taberna Gourmet, a taxi ride away from the center of town, chef Javier Abascal, passionate and bouncy, disagreed. “Look,” he said, “I am using this pig’s feet recipe from 1928.” And even though most diners sat at tables, “I am not a restaurant,” he said with pride. “Tapas only.”
One of the pioneers of the “nouvelle tapa” was Sixto Tovar, who opened Espacio Eslava in 1988 and still packs them in. “What is common today almost created a revolution then,” he said, referring to his recipes and the restaurant’s baby-blue walls, which caused a stir at the time. I had a hard time choosing between the slow-cooked, melt-in-your-mouth pork cheeks and the luscious honey ribs so I got both — and tiny, crunchy anchovies for good measure.
Another pioneer, Juan Gómez of La Azotea, also seems to be doing things right as he prepares to open his fifth location. “I imagined a hybrid between a bar and a restaurant,” he said, looking more like a gentleman farmer than a chef. “A casual, fun eatery with top-notch service and ingredients.” Diners crowded the bar as well as the high and low tables. I zoomed in on the ajo blanco, another classic (and often bland), but this cold almond soup came sprinkled with mango and dried salty tuna. It was fabulous.
As we walked in the next day, Dario Dominguez, wearing a dark apron with a shaved head, took a break from carving a humongous sea bass on the counter of Sahumo, his cozy restaurant. The chef, who is classically trained, was in the grip of a true existential crisis last year and went back and forth between concepts, including serving tapas in the front and large plates in the back. “I kept thinking, tablecloth? No tablecloth?” he said. “I kept wiping out finger marks on tiny tapas plates.” But then the epiphany came: “I can only do one thing at a time.”
That thing is large plates, meant to be shared. Dominguez spoke at length about the kind of “cow” he used in his steak tartare, the eggs he chose from a specific farm. Later, I took a bite: smoky, silky, gamy. The French dish never tasted better.
Each tapas bar or restaurant reflected the spirit of Andalusia with its casual but intense social street life. The tapas themselves reflected the pantry of the region, the Mediterranean and the ocean, the mountains and the valleys, the rivers and the fields. The dishes had little in common with the sad anchovies of my childhood. They spoke of inspiration and passion, of young minds at work striving to change the world one tapa at a time.
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