MY friend Jose Carlos Capel swings his arm around my shoulder. "Welcome to the tapeo of the future," he shouts, spraying a mojito into his mouth. From a glass atomizer.
In a compulsively social country like Spain, the tapeo — the act of shuffling from one tapas bar to the next — is a ritual of near-religious importance. But tonight's tapas bash is a different story. We are at a cocktail reception thrown by Ferran Adriá, the high priest of avant-garde cooking whose tapitas run to stuff like miniature loaf pans of frozen "air" flavored with Parmesan and gossamer cones filled with trout eggs and soy gelée.
Adriá embraces his signature mad-genius part — speech jumbled, gaze so intense that his eyes seem to pop out of their orbits. Crowding the theatrically dim reception hall of Hotel Ritz are press (Capel is restaurant critic for El País, Spain's largest daily), chefs and sundry members of the city's beau monde, all gasping and gawking at chefs blowtorching quail eggs in order to enclose them in paper-thin squares of caramel colored with gold powder. Adriá's assistant, enveloped in clouds of hissing-cold vapors, immerses balls of pistachio paste into a caldron of liquid nitrogen. The Martian popsicles emerge frozen on the outside and liquid inside.
I could use a cold beer but settle instead for hot-and-cold daiquiris and a glass of rum "spherified" into beads using calcium chloride, with coconut milk, pineapple juice and a flourish of cotton candy. It's a piña colada.
Of course, away from Adriá's antics, old-school tapas bars still remain happily true to themselves: heart-stoppingly atmospheric dives with jamones (cured hams) hung from the ceiling, walls plastered with bullfighting photos and crowds shouting orders for another round of batter-fried bacalao. Standbys like ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-drenched potato salad), anchovies and potato tortilla seem inescapable.
But beyond basics, the tapa emerges as a truly protean concept. Place a portion of leftover stew in a miniature cazuela and you've got a tapa. Order a caña (small beer), chat up your neighbor, and it's fiesta. Are you surprised that the Spanish prefer hanging out at bars to entertaining at home?
In its original form, the tapa (the word means lid) was a free slice of cheese or jamón topping a glass of sherry — to protect the drink from flies and dust. The tradition originated in the 19th century in Andalusia, the center of sherry production, where scorching summers make a full meal unthinkable. Today, defined only by function and size — a bite to accompany drinks — tapas vary from bar to bar and from region to region.
Galicia is famous for seafood empanadas, Asturias for chorizo braised in hard cider. Andalusians like to nibble on ethereal fried seafood and marinated potatoes, the Basques on a bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers. In worldly Madrid, Madrileños are forsaking the meatballs and patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy-smoky tomato sauce) of the old tiled tabernas and moving on to smart faux-rustic bars serving boutique wines by the glass, fancy cold cuts boards and smoked salmon canapés.
The array of choices is so mind-boggling, at times, that the entire country seems like one vast bar theme park: wine bars and cheese bars, the breakfast bars of Seville and the beer bars of Madrid, bars out of central casting and neo-moderne haunts with tapas artfully arranged in shot glasses, skewers and spoons.
Traditionally tapas functioned as appetite-teasers, but in modern Spain the verb tapear can easily imply eating a full meal. You start with an elaborate canapé, move on to a martini glass of new-wave gazpacho sorbet, progress to something neo-traditional, say olive-oil poached clams with Iberian ham, and end with tiny dessert tapas, usually foamy mousses or unusual granitas and ice creams.
In a country where it's de rigueur for young chefs to collaborate with scientists and where the word deconstruction is uttered in kitchens as routinely as it was at philosopher Jacques Derrida's seminars, a tapeo can also be a ride on the wild side.
"Today's tapa has come a long way [from] a morsel that came on or with bread and was eaten out of hand standing up," Capel, the restaurant critic, explains. "First you dropped the bread, then you started eating tapas sitting down with a knife and fork. Suddenly high-minded chefs are abandoning normal portions in favor of degustation menus of tapas-scaled bites." It was Adriá's progressions of 30-plus tiny tastes at El Bulli that sparked the small-plates revolution in Spain in the '90s. In a culture already hooked on grazing, the trend spread like wildfire. The phenomenon has a name: alta cocina en miniatura, or haute cuisine in miniature.
Designer tapas are all the rage here, in Spain's most cosmopolitan city, even though its region, Catalonia, doesn't really have an indigenous tapas tradition. The first salvo was fired a few years ago by Estrella de Plata, a minimalist bar in the once-raffish fisherman's quarter of Barceloneta. "I couldn't afford a real restaurant but wanted to do serious food," says chef-owner Didac Lopez. He did. Soon tout Barcelona was at his doorstep, fighting for a taste of his fried shrimp "lollipops" served with shot glasses of Parmesan velouté.
At Santa Maria, an industrial-chic boîte in the edgy El Born district, Catalan cuisine meets the world in tapas like frog legs touched with ginger and soy. At Espai Sucre next door, chef Jordi Burton pushes the envelope further, with five-course tasting menus based only on sweets. I will never forget Burton's sublime spiced milk pudding with lime peel and toffee and a few baby arugula leaves bridging the gap between sweet and savory.
Carles ABELLAN, this city's star miniaturist, spent nine years at El Bulli with Adriá, who always sends clients to Commerç 24, Abellan's chic, buzzing temple of the nueva tapa. "I couldn't see making a living cooking intellectual meals that only two diners might understand," Abellan confesses, somewhat wearily. Instead he applies his own brand of soft-core conceptualism to whimsical bites that reference the vernacular tapas traditions but reconfigure them in new ways. As an homage to the Spanish obsession with gourmet canned seafood, custom-made sardine tins hold raw clams marinated with passion fruit. The ubiquitous mushroom revuleto (scrambled eggs) is also placed in quotation marks: egg foam with truffles spooned into eggshells and nestled in an egg carton. My dessert? A mini bitter chocolate mousse accessorized with peppery olive oil and Maldon salt. It seems utterly Dali-esque, but it actually riffs on a wartime Catalan staple of chocolate-smeared toast eaten with olive oil.
"Young chefs who dream of big restaurants end up opening bars," says Iñaki Gulin, one of the two thirtysomething owners of Cuchara de San Telmo, when I move on to the Basque city of San Sebastian, Spain's other food capital. Gulin and Alex Montiel, a Basque and a Catalan and both El Bulli alumni, have their own magic formula: restaurant food at bar prices in a narrow, perpetually mobbed space whose most conspicuous decoration is a "Don't Bush Me" poster.
It's amazing what one eats here for two bucks. Caramelized foie gras ravioli. Glasses of luxurious chilled crab soup dabbed with tomato marmalade. Stupendous balsamic-glazed pork ribs, slow-cooked, deboned, molded, then flash-grilled in a process that takes two days.
"Barcelona designer bars are elitist and overpriced," Montiel scoffs. "Ours is a real bar, a populist place where fishermen rub shoulders with Michel Bras and Olivier Roellinger," he adds, referring to Michelin-starred French heavyweight chefs who take field trips to San Sebastian to see what's cooking.
In their Basque incarnation, tapas are called pintxos and classically involve bread: baroque canapés decorated with frilly mayonnaise borders, grated eggs sprinkles and colorful pepper confetti, all arrayed on bar counters like edible communion dresses. At Bar Bergara in the affluent Gros district of San Sebastian, so ornate are the pintxos that it takes the owner, Patxi Bergara, and many assistants four hours to assemble the Technicolor counter display. "You should put a 'Don't touch' sign on your pintxos," I tell Bergara, sad that his Tiffany's-worthy production will soon be ravaged by hungry mobs. He chuckles and hands me a tartlet with duck gizzards and apples caramelized with Armagnac.
"The pintxo is our most important culinary treasure," says Juan Mari Arzak, chef-owner of the visionary Michelin three-star restaurant Arzak. He and I are at Aloña Berri, a bar near Bergara that pioneered the gourmet pintxo in the '80s. The prix fixe small plates degustation here leaves you wondering how it's possible for a neighborhood joint to serve food that belongs at French Laundry. Like the killingly elegant dish composed of a spoon of grilled eggplant purée, topped by ethereal yogurt mousse, drizzled with aged balsamico and paired on a stark white plate with a shot glass of iridescent-green pea soup.
Arzak eyes a plate of foie gras and candied mango cannelloni. Then he tells me about a dinner he and Adriá have just cooked in Madrid for 400 royals who gathered to celebrate the marriage of Prince Felipe, heir to the Spanish throne. I learn that deconstructed jamón sandwiches, rose petal tempura and a mysterious whimsy called Yogurt-Yogurt were among the space-age hors d'oeuvres passed before dinner. And that the cocktail reception had stations where Adriá and Arzak demonstrated their latest techniques to stunned monarchs and visiting dignitaries. "Prince Charles, Mandela, Caroline of Monaco — they couldn't believe our tapas!" Arzak hoots. So this how the hyper-conservative familia real has chosen to amuse princes and presidents.
Arzak, who has something of a pintxo addiction, slips away from his restaurant often for a bite and a schmooze. And he's delighted when local pintxo bar owners dispatch their children for a stage at Arzak to pick up avant-garde tricks.
In Spain, haute cuisine and popular traditions collide, and everyone eats at everyone's restaurants. No doubt half the young chefs in Spain are busy knocking off Adriá's liquid nitrogen bonbons.
Meanwhile, Ferran Adriá is probably at his favorite tapas bar, knocking back cañas and nibbling on anchovies and jamón.
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Tapeo in your own backyard
Admittedly, the Spanish leave the task of preparing tapas to the bars. But lacking one on your street corner, a tapas fiesta is an easy, jazzy way to entertain, especially on a night too hot for a full meal. In addition to the recipes at left, which take you from soup to dessert, serve good olives, roasted Marcona almonds — warmed in the oven and tossed with some flaky sea salt — sliced hard Spanish chorizo or imported salami, and Spanish cheeses accompanied by fresh figs or membrillo (quince paste).
If you can get your hands on Serrano ham, so much the better.
Briny, spicy skewers also make a popular tapa. Try alternating rolled up anchovies, manzanilla olives, squares or red bell pepper and small, slender medium-hot green pickled peppers.
Canapés are another favorite — especially those with smoked salmon or a spread of Cabrales or Roquefort mashed with a little cream and topped with a few toasted walnuts. And not to forget the ubiquitous Catalan pa amb tomaquet, or tomato bread: slices of grilled or toasted country bread, rubbed with a tomato half and drizzled with olive oil.
To drink? Sherry is a natural, but at many bars in Spain, beer seems to be numero uno, either straight or mixed with a little lemon soda and called clara. Add a dash of Sprite or lemon soda to a glass of cheap red wine on ice and you've got tinto de verrano ("summer red"), the beloved summer spritzer of Andalusia. (Sangria is for tourists.) Or go with wine, such as a light Rioja, a Navarra rose, an Albariño or cava. In lieu of my favorite Txacoli (a fresh slightly fizzy Basque white, which, alas, doesn't travel well) I often serve Portuguese vinho verde with tapas.
— Anya von Bremzen
Spicy gazpacho sorbet with balsamic vinegar
Total time: 55 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling time and 2 hours freezing time
Note: Adapted from Tragabuches in Ronda
5 very ripe but firm tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds), seeded and chopped
1 cup cubed country bread without crusts
1 envelope unflavored gelatin (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
1 small garlic clove, crushed through a press
1/4 cup chilled vodka
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
2 tablespoons syrupy aged balsamic vinegar or 1/3 cup thin balsamic vinegar reduced to 2 tablespoons and cooled
Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 Granny Smith apple, peeled and finely diced
1/2 red bell pepper, peeled and finely diced
1/2 cucumber, peeled and finely diced
Finely slivered mint
1. Place the tomatoes in a sieve set over a bowl and let them drain for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, soak the bread in cold water to cover for 5 minutes. Drain the bread and squeeze out excess moisture.
2. In a small bowl, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of cold water over the gelatin and let stand for 5 minutes. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons very hot water and stir to completely dissolve the gelatin.
3. In a bowl, toss together the tomatoes, bread, gelatin, red and green peppers, celery, onion, garlic, vodka, corn syrup, oil, vinegar, Tabasco and salt.
4. In two batches, process the mixture in a food processor until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a blender and purée until it is as smooth as possible.
5. Chill the mixture until cold, about 1 hour. Stir, then freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Once churned, transfer the mixture to a plastic container and freeze for about 2 hours but not much longer, or the sorbet will crystallize. (If making ahead and freezing longer, let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving.)
6. Scoop the sorbet into large shot glasses or small martini glasses. Drizzle with a little of the reduced vinegar and the oil and sprinkle with diced apple, bell peppers, cucumbers and mint.
Roasted pepper, tomato and tuna mold with basil and black olive purées
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes active time plus 1 hour, 30 minutes baking and resting time
Servings: 8 to 10
Note: Adapted from La Castela in Madrid. If imported tuna is unavailable, use Bumble Bee tonno in oil.
1 1/4 cups chopped basil leaves
1/2 cup plus 5 tablespoons mild olive oil, plus more for brushing the peppers, divided
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 pounds ripe red or yellow tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar, preferably aged, or good red wine vinegar, divided
6 large, ripe, meaty red peppers, cored, stemmed, halved lengthwise
2 (6-ounce) cans imported solid oil-packed tuna, drained and flaked into chunks
3 tablespoons purchased black olive paste
1. In a blender, purée the basil with one-half cup of the oil, the garlic and lemon juice until completely smooth. Scrape into a bowl and let the mixture stand while continuing with the next steps. Stir well before using.
2. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring gently, until soft, about 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in the sugar, 2 tablespoons of the vinegar, and salt to taste and cook for another minute. With a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to a sieve set over a bowl and let the liquid drain off for a few minutes. Cool the tomatoes, then refrigerate for about 1 hour.
3. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil and brush the foil lightly with oil. Press the peppers gently to flatten them and place them skin-side-up on the cookie sheet. Brush with a little oil and roast until the peppers are tender and lightly charred, about 35 minutes.
4. Transfer the peppers to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes. Peel the peppers and cut into thin strips. Place them back in the bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the remaining 1 tablespoon of the vinegar and a little salt. Let stand for about 30 minutes.
5. Line a 9-inch pie plate with plastic wrap so that you have some overhang on two sides. Arrange half of the roasted peppers on the bottom, scatter half of the tuna on top, drizzle with about 2 teaspoons basil purée and top with half of the tomatoes. Make a second layer using the remaining peppers, tuna and tomatoes, drizzling again lightly with the basil purée.
6. Place a large serving plate over the pie plate, invert and remove the plastic.
7. In a small bowl, whisk the olive paste with the remaining 3 tablespoons of the oil. Drizzle the sides of the serving plate decoratively with the basil purée (you might not need all of it) and dot with olive purée, then drizzle a little of each purée over the top of the salad.
Note: Adapted from El Suquet de L'Almirall in Barcelona
1 1/2 cups best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 small cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise
3/4 cup pine nuts
3 to 4 ounces serrano ham or prosciutto in one piece, finely diced
3 pounds small clams, such as cockles, Manilas or littlenecks, scrubbed
2to 3 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
1. In a wide earthenware cazuela, a very large (12- to 14-inch) heavy skillet or a wide casserole, heat the oil with the garlic over medium heat until tender and fragrant. Add the pine nuts and the ham and cook, stirring, until the nuts just begin to color, about 2 minutes.
2. Add the clams, raise the heat to medium-high, cover and cook until the clams open, about 5 to 9 minutes (depending on the size of the clams), shaking the pan occasionally. Discard any of the clams that don't open.
3. Serve directly from the cazuela or transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the sauce. (If you have oil and pine nuts left over, toss it with pasta the next day.)
Anchovy, roasted red pepper, potato and egg pintxos
Total time: 60 minutes
Note: Adapted from Bar Bergara in San Sebastian.
1 large green bell pepper, halved lengthwise, cored and seeded
1 large, ripe red bell pepper, halved lengthwise, cored and seeded
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing the peppers
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
8 ( 1/4 -inch thick) diagonal slices from a thick baguette (slices should be about 2 inches by 4 or 5 inches) lightly toasted
1 to 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 hard-cooked eggs, cut into thin crosswise slices
1 medium red potato, boiled, peeled and cut into thin slices
8 white anchovies (boquerones en vinagre), drained
8 brown, oil-packed anchovies, drained
Minced flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil and oil it lightly. With your fist, press the peppers gently to flatten them and place them on the cookie sheet skin side up. Brush with a little oil and roast until the peppers are tender and lightly charred, about 35 minutes. (Alternatively, grill the peppers or broil on low until tender.)
2. Transfer the peppers to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes. Peel the peppers, return them to the bowl, and toss with the oil and vinegar.
3. To assemble the canapés, cut the peppers into 1-inch thick strips. Spread each toast lightly with mayonnaise and place a slice of egg and a slice of potato side by side slightly overlapping on each toast. Place a strip of green pepper and a strip of red pepper side by side along the length of the toast, trimming as necessary to fit. Top the red pepper strip with a white anchovy and the green with the brown anchovy. Repeat with the rest of the bread slices. Sprinkle the canapés with parsley and serve.
Note: Adapted from Commerç 24. This surrealist and controversial marriage of flavors — dark chocolate and fruity olive oil with a strange and wonderful accent of salt — defines New Spanish cuisine. Although this dessert is easy to make, good ingredients are essential: the best chocolate; an extra-fruity, slightly peppery olive oil; and the flaky British salt called Maldon (available at specialty shops or cookware stores like Williams-Sonoma).
9 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cacao)
1 cup heavy cream
5 to 8 tablespoons best-quality fruity, peppery extra-virgin olive oil
1. Chop the chocolate into small (one-fourth inch) pieces. Place in a metal bowl.
2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the cream until it just begins to boil.
3. Pour the cream over the chocolate all at once. Let the cream sit for a few minutes to melt the chocolate. Using a rubber spatula, slowly stir in a circular motion starting in the center of the bowl and working your way out to the sides. Be careful not to add too much air to the ganache. Stir until all the chocolate is melted and thoroughly blended with the cream. Cool at room temperature for at least 4 hours. The mixture will firm as it sits.
4. Use a melon baller to scoop balls of the mousse into small wide tumblers, or minimalist small glass bowls. Pour 2 to 3 teaspoons of the oil around but not on each serving of mousse and sprinkle judiciously with the salt.