Aitor Zabala is the hands-on chef at Somni, the 10-seat tasting-menu-only José Andrés restaurant in the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills.
“At Somni, the cooking is not simple. It’s painful, it’s hard, but the essence of it is simple,” says Zabala about the manicured, modernist food the restaurant serves. But, he says, “My favorite place to eat is at a beach bar in Catalonia with gambas rojas and bread and really cold beer. All my best memories are there.”
Rather than have him teach us how to sphericate something, we leaned on him for some of that Catalonian coastal cooking, represented in two tapas that play nicely with each other: garlicky sautéed shrimp and tomato toast. “For these dishes, I want simplicity. But with simple recipes, you need to make them right,” explains Zabala.
For the gambas, he likes head-on shrimp: “I don’t understand shrimp without heads. What I like about shrimp is what’s inside the head. I like the experience of sucking the juices out of the head and eating the tails with my fingers.”
And he had a smart tip for making the dish: removing the garlic from the oil before cooking the shrimp, then returning it when the dish is nearly done — ensuring the garlic won’t burn and turn bitter during cooking.
One of the best parts of gambas al ajillo is sponging up the garlicky oil with crusty bread. It’s even better when that bread is pan con tomate, the classic Spanish tapa of toast smeared with fresh tomatoes and glossed with olive oil.
Zabala quickly, effortlessly puts together both dishes, then picks up a shimmering slice of pan con tomate and observes, “This is a beautiful final product without much work.” He swipes it in the gambas’ sauce. “These are the beautiful things in life.”