From little things

Chef Brian Villahermosa and co-owner Thomas Hoff of Catalonia.

Chef Brian Villahermosa and co-owner Thomas Hoff of Catalonia.

Spaniards may not recognise it as the cuisine with which they are familiar, but the Aussie style of tapas is definitely on the rise.  Michael Harden reports.

Anyone who has not been padlocked in a box for the last five years could hardly fail to notice the wave of tapas joints that has washed over the Australian dining landscape. Sydney and Melbourne in particular have been increasingly colonised by places serving small plates and dishes for sharing, with some of these restaurants now considered among the best in the country. It has been a giddy rise for this style of eating, and one that is obviously striking a chord with the public. But is it just a trend, driven by the world food media’s ongoing obsession with Spain, or is it going to become a permanent fixture of the local scene?

The accusations that the current tapas tsunami is trend-driven are understandable. Much of the food served under the label of tapas has only the most tenuous link to traditional Spanish bar food, but it still gets tossed into the same generic basket, regardless of whether it’s patates bravas, dolmades or spring rolls. It seems that, in Australia, tapas has become shorthand for a way of eating rather than describing a particular cuisine. This fudging of terminology annoys those who are trying to keep it authentic, but until a better term comes along, tapas it is, albeit tapas Aussie-style.

Brian Villahermosa, chef and co-owner of Kirribilli’s Catalonia, says that, while the food he cooks is not strictly tapas, he is happy to promote Catalonia as a tapas restaurant because that is the term that people understand.

“Technically, tapas are just little bites, while raciones are full plates,” he explains. “But people don’t understand that, so we have gone down the tapas path, in that people understand tapas to be sharing plates of any description. Until there is a new term that everybody can accept and recognise, we’ll still call it that.”

Frank Camorra, owner of Melbourne’s famed MoVida and the newly opened MoVida Next Door, says that, while he strives for authenticity, there are cultural differences between Spain and Australia that sometimes don’t translate in a restaurant setting.

“With MoVida Next Door in particular, we were trying to get back to a really authentic feel,” he says. “But we have to be a little bit careful because, in Spain, people are happy to stand and eat and then move onto the place next door. In Melbourne, there is not the concentration of those tapas bars, so people want to stay for a while. They want a chair and they don’t want to be cramped and crowded and there has to be some manners, something that is not always there in Spain.”

Another reason for local modifications to the traditional tapas concept is that, despite an obvious swell in popularity for shared plate dining, there are still many diners resistant to the idea.

Jo Corrigan, the owner of The Commoner in Fitzroy, a modern British restaurant that takes its influences from the Mediterranean, Europe and Britain, is a firm believer in the flexibility of the shared plate style of dining. She refuses to call what they are doing tapas, however, believing that, unless the dish is in traditional tapas style, calling it anything else “is like calling a dog a cat—it’s wrong and there’s no other way to look at it”. The lack of a convenient shorthand doesn’t make it any easier selling The Commoner’s style of dining to some customers, though.

“It has been particularly difficult for people to get their head around what we are doing and we are trying to work out why that is,” she says. “I think I overestimated the ability of the public to understand something they hadn’t seen before. People who are already into food understand the concept of sharing dishes and going on a journey and that is great, but am I feeding them or am I feeding the average public? Seventy-five per cent of the time, it is the average public, and it is them that we really need to educate.”

In Sydney, where, according to Villahermosa, “there seems to be a new tapas place opening every month”, it seems less of a challenge for people to understand dining without their own personal plate.

Richard Nichols co-owns Subsolo in Sydney’s CBD, near the Supreme Court. He says that, because of its location, it gets a lot of “old-fashioned diners who like their grub and plenty of it”, but it has had no problem getting them to embrace the shared food concept.

“The general public is becoming more food-oriented and better educated,” he says. “People are attracted to the idea of tapas because it gives them the opportunity to sample a wider variety of food and tastes. They go out today willing to try different things. In a way, they have been trained to understand the tapas concept through the degustation menus that became popular five to 10 years ago. That was another way of giving people lots of different tastes over the course of a meal.”

Variety and flexibility seem to be the catch-cries of diners who embrace the tapas concept. But while tapas restaurants are perceived to be less formal, more breezy and casual places than traditional restaurants, the logistics of serving up lots of little dishes in an order that makes sense to the diner is a complex process that requires particular skills on the part of service staff.  “Dishes should be brought out fairly quickly,” explains Nichols. “But there should not be too many things brought to the table at the one time. It disappoints me when I go out and order six or seven tapas and they come out in such quick succession that you have all this food on the table and you can’t possibly try it all before it gets cold. It is up to the service staff to control the pace of the food coming out of the kitchen.”

Corrigan agrees that service is the key to a successful shared plates restaurant and that floor staff not only have to keep the flow of the meal going, but also have to be wary of becoming too intrusive.

“You do need a higher level of skill on the floor,” she says. “We change crockery and cutlery between courses and, if people are opting for different wines with their meal, we change glassware. We have a small dining room; that is an advantage when you are ferrying lots of small plates, but it can also lead to over-servicing. The floor staff need to understand that, with the delivery of small food, not every dish needs a lot of explanation and over-informing. You need a server with a lot of experience and a lot of initiative because, with this style of service, there are perhaps eight points of interaction with customers whereas, in a traditional meal, it might be more like four or five—so you have to be aware of that.” Another potential trouble spot for tapas restaurants is that customers believe, because the style of dining seems less formal, it should therefore come with a cheaper price tag.

“People perceive tapas to be a cheap option,” says Camorra. “They say, oh you must be doing very well, because you are only serving small portions and are charging a lot. But our food costs are extremely high. Because it is shared, people see it as a cheap option; that makes it more difficult for them to see value in what you are doing.”

Nichols agrees. “Customers can sometimes be surprised about how much the dishes add up to on the bill,” he says. “When they are trying bits and pieces that are $15 each, they might have 10 dishes, and then the bill for the food is up around $150 before they know it. Some people raise their eyebrows about how much they have spent. You do get some comment, especially from critics.”

Christine Manfield’s à la carte menu of small dishes at restaurant Universal belongs to the same broad family of restaurants where customers build their own meals. She believes that, for this type of dining experience to work, the size of the dishes must be kept small.

“Smaller plates are more elegant,” she says. “With every dish you create, you want to leave a lasting impression and you want to leave the customer wanting more. Tapas is about small bar snacks and that is terrific, but sometimes those tastes don’t translate into bigger plates. There are some places that effectively do tapas; but then they offer a similar sort of style in a much larger plate. I call it a ‘lost in translation’ moment. Some of our dishes are quite complex and intense; if you put them in a larger context, you end up with palate death.”

But among all the potential pitfalls and complexities, there are advantages, particularly at a time when licensing laws are becoming more flexible and the traditional tapas structure of a quick drink and a snack can be more fully embraced.

Villahermosa says that there are “great advantages in this style of food, both for the customers and for us.

“The flexibility means that you are not alienating customers if they don’t want to go the whole kit and caboodle,” he says. “If they want to come in and share a ham plate and sample a really nice wine, then they can do that and have a couple of dishes on the side rather than a whole meal. So it is good for them, and for us, because we can pull in more of those punters who don’t necessarily want to eat a whole meal.”

There seems to be a general feeling among the owners of tapas-style restaurants that they are offering a style of dining well-suited to the Australian climate and temperament, and thus will become a permanent fixture on the culinary landscape. There is no doubt that the tapas brand name has been damaged by trendy bandwagon jumping (one restaurant listed dim sum, spring rolls and banana fritters); but, at the same time, the crowds flocking to the tapas places with a touch of authenticity seem to show that small tastes and shared plates have a healthy future. Tapas, in all its many incarnations, is still well and truly on the rise.  ≤

Though there are many stories about the origins of tapas, the most commonly recognised is that the original tapas were slices of bread or meat which drinkers used to cover their glasses between sips in order to keep fruit flies from diving into their sherry (tapa is derived from the verb taper, ‘to cover’). And while there are still countless bars in cities and towns across Spain serving simple one-bite snacks to people standing around the bar, the new wave Spanish chefs (most famously Ferran Adrià) have taken that concept and reinvented it, adapting it to a restaurant setting. It seems that, even in Spain, the concept of tapas is open for tweaking, and it is this more modern, less traditional form that countries around the world have imported.

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