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The Tale of Two Tapas Bars: What Qualifies as an Authentic Tapas Restaurant Outside of Spain?

I admit, I tend to be little trepidatious when hearing of an authentic Spanish Tapas restaurant outside of Spain. I think of “authentic” Mexican food at Chipotle, or “traditional” Chinese food at “Big Bowl” – essentially, complete shams. (Photos in this post by browners82)

A tapa means more than a small plate of food you can hold in one hand while imbibing various vinous beverages in the other. To me, authentic tapas must resemble commonly found recipes in Spain, such as patatas bravas, tortilla de patatas or croquettes. Not to say that I’m not open to innovation and creativity, but when a menu claims it serves authentic Spanish tapas, and I read “spicy black beans with grilled calamari” or “fried plantains sprinkled in rock salt” on the menu, I want to scream. Why? In short, because it’s not Spanish! You may find it on a Spanish menu in Central or South America, but it’s not a traditional dish from Spain.

What else qualifies a Spanish tapas restaurant as authentic? Although not a requirement, I like cohesiveness. If a restaurant claims to feature Catalan food, I assume they will have pan con tomate, butifarra and spinach with pinenuts, at the very least. And if I’m lucky, the interior design will highlight the works of Miro or Gaudi, while music from Albert Pla, Carles Sabater i Hernández or Ailyn flow through the restaurant. What I don’t want to find are Basque tapas, American music and French interior design. Call me a purist, but I take truth in advertising seriously. Side note: I’m not admitting to the fact that most Spanish tapas bars pump out American pop songs. Let me live in my traditional happy place.

Fortunately, both of the Spanish tapas restaurants in London, Barcelona Tapas and Casa Brindisa, surpassed my expectations. Claiming to be “authentic” representations of what you’d find in Spain, I walked away feeling rather impressed with not only their food, but their very real connection to Spain.

Launched in 1991 by father and son team, Martin and Davis Dalmau, Barcelona Tapas is chain of brightly colored, Gaudi-styled restaurants scattered across London. Snuggled deep underground on Botolph Street, the restaurant I visited offered a sense of airy playfulness with its festive citrus walls, brightly colored mosaics and oddly paired black and white checkered floors, giving it a stylish diner feel.

The food menu, long and expansive, felt more like a religious tomb to tapas than a simple lunch menu, boasting of over 50 dishes from across Spain. From the famed Galician Octopus drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled in paprika (a dish I truly wish I tasted – as it’s a true litmus test of a good tapas bar) to Catalan Habas served with butifarra negra and broad beans, their menu is as diverse as Spain itself. We tasted a handful of tapas from their menu including the tortilla de patatas, which was firm, savory and flavorful. Fortunately, this was not the case. The pimiento de patrons, a small and occasionally spicy sauteed green pepper, came alive in my mouth with a touch of sweetness behind a meaty and juicy texture. This is a personal favorite of mine, and one I take seriously when enjoying tapas! And of course, we licked our fingers on their famed Jamon Iberico, a high quality cured ham that is equivalent to entering the gates of heaven. From the small array of tapas I shared among friends, they were all served in a simple, no frills manner, highlighting only the quality of the ingredients and the authenticity of its preparation.

The wine list was of equal quality, offering an enormous selection of Spanish wines ranging from the smallest of quality regions to the largest, each and every one available by the glass. This, my friends, is a major selling point because I can’t even find this in Spain! From Txacoli in the north to Sherry in the south, and from wines made of Monastrell in the east to Alvarino in the west, there is something for everyone. My only caveat being that although their house wine is perfectly fine, with so many interesting wines to try by the glass, I wouldn’t waste your time.

And as for prices, across the board, both the food and wine menu are completely reasonable. Where you might be a little offset is their informal and abrupt style of service. Waiters are fast and furious, and expect you to call their attention if you need them, as opposed to being waited on hand and foot. But if you want authenticity, this style of service is as real as you’ll find anywhere in Spain, typically cultivating the art of patience and humor. Just repeat the mantra, “no pasa nada”.

Casa Brindisa

Casa Brindisa is an entirely different creature. Although similar to Barcelona Tapas in that it too is a chain with restaurants peppered across London, it felt more artsy and rustic in its expression. Visiting the South Kensington location right before the dramatic lunch rush, I spent a good hour chatting with José Pizarro, who runs the umbrella company, Tapas Brindisa, named after the Spanish foods import company set up by his colleague Monika Linton. Inquiring about his philosophy and ambitions for the restaurant, he replied, “I want simplicity! I want to offer people a chance to taste real everyday dishes across Spain.” Let’s be clear, I’ve never seen or heard of his famed deep fried Monte Enebro goat’s cheese drizzled with orange blossom honey, anywhere in Spain, but I’m not complaining. Any dish that leaves a permanent grin on my face as I drudged my way through the rain soaked streets of London that afternoon is a friend of mine!

I might also suggest his homemade Gordal olives stuffed with orange and marjoram, a lovely and bright flavor that would have paired beautifully with Manzanilla – though not bad with my glass of Albarinho in hand. Here too you can find a wide range of cured Iberian jamon, spanish cheese, and traditional tapas such as the patatas bravas and croquettes, as well as heartier dishes like the Iberian pork tenderloin with Oloroso sherry and roasted apple. My only major complaint for the food was its liberal application of salt. Although I’m someone who should have a salt lick attached to my chest, as I adore this beautiful and perfect mineral, it has been known to kill a dish or three.

The ambiance was warm, yet minimalist, with simple wooden tables, low lighting and an overall casual feeling. Follow the stairs down below and you’ll encounter a quaint, little deli in front of the equally charming loos.

The wine list is equally diverse, with selections from across the great peninsula. Selected wines by varietal are offered by the glass at extremely reasonable prices. In regards to service, because I was sitting at the bar, I didn’t experience it in its full glory, but from what little I saw, servers were courteous, attentive but gave off a slightly haughty, self-important air when interacting with customers. Then again, the bartender did perform a impromptu Flamenco piece, which was either his form of flirting or simply a moment of pure musical expression. Wherever his toe tapping, hand clapping, inspiration came from, I thoroughly enjoyed his rather unexpected performance!

In Summary

Are both of these restaurants worthy of your time? Yes! Although different in their atmosphere and approach, each offer quality tapas at a reasonable price. And to be perfectly frank, I’d rather eat here than at half of the restaurants in my little town of Terrassa, Spain!

Do you have an experience with either of these restaurants? Or do you have an “authentic” Spanish tapas restaurant you want to suggest in your neck of the woods?

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

Barcelona Tapas
15 St Botolph Street (ent Middlesex St)
Tel 087 1971 7221
Mon-Fri 11:00-23:00
Sat-Sun Closed
Website:http://www.barcelona-tapas.com/ (Flash heavy)
Twitter: @barcelonatapas
Facebook: Click here

Casa Bridisa
7-9 Exhibition Road
London
SW7 2HE
Tel 020 7590 0008
Monday to Saturday : 12 midday to 11pm
Sunday:12 midday to 10pm
Website: http://www.casabrindisa.com/
Twitter: @Jose_Pizarro

  • http://www.mountainvalleywines.co.uk Nemanja

    Hi Gabriella, I spent some time in San Sebastian last year while sourcing for some new wines and thought the Tapas/Pintxos bars of San Seb and Bilbao were great both in their atmosphere and offering (food and wine both). Just wondering why you would oppose to "Basque tapas"?

    Great article on Casa Bridisa and Barcelona Tapas! I have visited both and reading through your post I can't wait to go again!

    Nemanja

  • http://www.catavino.net Gabriella Opaz

    Hello Nemanja! To be honest, I adore Basque tapas! My point was that I don't like when restaurants claim 1 theme and then turn around and do a hodgepodge of cultural elements. So my example to illustrate this idea was using a restaurant that claimed they were an authentic Basque restaurant, while having American pop music streaming through the speakers, French interior design and then a few Basque tapas intermixed among Catalan, Andalusian and Central American Tapas. To me, if you're going to wave the "authentic" card, you should be authentic throughout.

    Hope that clarifies my point :)

    • http://www.mountainvalleywines.co.uk Nemanja

      Thanks Gabriella – and I completely agree with you. I think recently there has been such a massive price driven push that the authenticity/origin is completely lost and it was this attention to origin above all that made the authentic offering unique. It's depressing that Spanish food and wine has been narrowed down to several well known Tapas dishes and wine exclusively from Rioja (not that Rioja is bad but there are so many other regions offering great stuff, too!).

      What are your thoughts on non-spanish people running (or trying to) run an authentic Spanish bar/restaurant. Is it possible or are those attempting such a task inherently at a disadvantage? Do you know any examples of where this has been done well?

      Thanks!

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/azahar azahar

    I agree with you that "authentic" is a loaded word, and I usually don't know what people mean when they use it, especially when they ask to be taken to "authentic" bars on my tapas tours. Will they be disappointed if I take them someplace without bullfight posters and sawdust but that serves some of the best jamón in town? I used to work at a fabulous tapas bar in Bristol that used fresh "Spanish" ingredients but ended up serving tapas with a twist – and all totally delish. Meanwhile, as you say, sometimes totally "authentic" tapas bars in Spain can be crap.

    Me? I keep hoping a decent Thai restaurant will open in Seville…