The Passion of Spanish Cuisine
"People weren’t clamoring for more Spanish food," says Rob Wilder, who co-owns the popular 10-year old Jaleo in Washington, D.C. and spun off a second Jaleo in Bethesda, Md. last year. What they did want, he argues, is an authentic, casual experience. "There’s the sense that this is the real thing, and I think people crave that authenticity right now," he says of chef Jose Andres’ menu, which tips heavily toward tapas. "Those little dishes, sharing food, the festive atmosphere...those make Jaleo a vibrant space," Wilder says.
Arguably the biggest barrier to success of a Spanish restaurant in the U.S. is lack of familiarity. Americans haven’t developed the same intimate relationship with gazpacho or salt cod or empanadas that they have with pizza or burgers or ribs. So the first hurdle is often getting potential customers to consider a Spanish menu.
Tapas offer a natural introduction to Spanish tastes. In New York, Solera has used tapas to introduce the wines and cuisine of Spain. The restaurant constructs tasting menus that spotlight one region. The tastings attract newcomers and frequent customers who have come to trust the staff’s judgment. "We’ve traveled all over Spain and we try to bring back new ideas and new pairings," says Ron Miller, maitre’d and manager.
In August, Chicago’s Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! whipped up interest with three events: A paella cooking class, a Flamenco dinner show and a slide show of art by Spanish master El Greco with a six-course dinner that included Spanish wines. Not surprisingly, paella is the favorite dish at the Lettuce Entertain You-run restaurant, which put contemporary-style Spanish food on the Chicago map in the mid-1980s. The menu lists more than a dozen variations, from a shiitake and portobello mushroom version to one with shrimp, squid and monkfish.
Jusu Zubikari, chef at the 14-year-old Taberna del Alabardero in Washington, D.C., says the early years were rough going. But the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games helped raise awareness of Spain and sparked an interest in Spanish food. "Before that, you wouldn’t believe how many peopled called and asked if we served enchiladas and a lot of food I had never even eaten," says the Basque native.
Against American Palates
Many Spanish restaurants in the U.S. try to feature foods of more than one region, but certain regional specialties seem to have more international appeal than others. Catalonian romesco sauce, a finely ground mixture of tomatoes, red bell peppers, onion, garlic, almonds and olive oil, typically served with grilled fish or poultry, "is very appealing," says Joyce Goldstein, former chef/owner of San Francisco’s Square One restaurant and author of 18 cookbooks, including the recent Savoring Spain and Portugal. "You put it on a plate and it sells food."
But at Denver’s Nicois, which serves primarily Basque-style food, chef/owner Kevin Taylor avoided labeling it Spanish, reasoning that "to go out and say it’s Basque cuisine would be suicide." He says the public has a skewed perception of Spanish food, but "if you call it Mediterranean, they’ll go for it." So the menu reflects San Sebastian, northern Catalonian, Italian and French influences.
Similarly, out in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s Andaluca presents Spanish cuisine within a pan-Mediterranean menu that also focuses on Greek, Italian and Moroccan dishes. Executive Chef Wayne Johnson says an "Americanized" paella on the menu–one with seafood, chicken and chorizo–remains the restaurant’s second-biggest seller. His menu includes accents such as a beef tenderloin stuffed with cabrales, a strong-tasting Spanish blue cheese.
When Taberna del Alabardero first opened, Zubikari recalls that fish served with their heads intact and unpeeled prawns made some diners a bit squeamish, so they got makeovers. Tripe, organ meats, salt cod, white anchovies and other traditional Spanish foods are generally tough sells.
"We don’t even try to sell tripe," admits Mariano Aznar, executive chef at Solera in New York. But customers are fond of Solera’s seafood preparations, which include cod, hake and monkfish served with salsa verde or romesco; and tapas such as fried calamari, garlic shrimp and mussels in romesco.
Some chefs have found success simply toning down Spanish food to make it more acceptable to Americans without sacrificing much authenticity. Nicois tried serving a white gazpacho with almonds and grapes, but "people didn’t understand the flavors," Taylor says. A more traditional gazpacho has worked, even though it’s served Spanish-style–in a glass. A lot of guests order the bacalao (dried salt cod) fritters, which rely more heavily on potatoes than they would in Spain. Taylor says the traditional recipe would be far too salty for American palates.
Some interest in Spanish cooking may reflect the fact that its basic elements routinely draw good press for their perceived health benefits. Taylor says it may be a coincidence, but he thinks Spanish cuisine’s reliance on seafood may be helping spur its popularity, as some Americans have eschewed beef in recent years.
"There’s not a lot of cream in any of this," says Andaluca’s Johnson. He says four ingredients form the foundation for many of his dishes: Olive oil, tomatoes, parsley and garlic. "If you don’t have garlic and olive oil, you’re probably not a Spanish restaurant. We go through tons of it," he says. Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!’s kitchen cooks up about 50 pounds of garlic a week.
And for Spanish chefs striving for authenticity, the perennial struggle to obtain authentic ingredients has eased. More companies are importing items like olives, olive oil, almonds, rice, piquillo peppers, smoked paprika, Jamon Serrano, manchego and other cheeses. Goldstein says Internet sites like tienda.com and The Spanish Table have widened the availability of these imports.
Small Plates Sell
While scores of chefs may not be rushing to copy dishes like Pulpa a la Vinagreta (octopus vinaigrette) or Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!’s Boquerones con Pimientos Asados (marinated white anchovies with roasted peppers), the tapas-style presentation of these dishes has a lot of crossover appeal.
"People like the size of the plates," says Jaleo’s Wilder. "It’s just a little taste for everybody, and they don’t feel like a whole meal is on the line if they don’t like it." For a cuisine that remains unfamiliar to many, minimizing the risk of a bad choice is a definite plus.
Small portions also allow people to splurge on foods they might otherwise avoid. "When people order shrimp prepared the Spanish way, deep fried, they’re not going to get a big dish that will stay with them the whole dinner," says Mario Leon, whose family operates Dali and Cuchi Cuchi, two tapas-style restaurants in the Boston area. "They’ll get four shrimp, and nobody feels like they’re eating a lot of fried food." Tapas account for about three-quarters of total sales at Dali. The biggest sellers are dishes with shrimp, sausage, chicken and mushrooms.
"There’s something endlessly appealing about having small tastes," agrees Goldstein. But she frowns on those who adopt tapas without even trying to make them Spanish. "Many chefs in this country have no respect for culture, so they just pick and choose what they like," she says. "It infuriates me. They’ll hear about something and have never tasted it, but they’ll make their own and call it a Spanish tapa."
Andaluca doesn’t commit that faux pas: The tasting section of the menu is called "Small Plates and Shareables" and features an eclectic mix of Mediterranean tastes such as lamb
dolmas, spicy calamari and, for the purist, a tortilla Espanola with romesco sauce and saffron aioli.
For sure, there seems to be room for growth of Spanish concepts in the U.S. A 2000 National Restaurant Association survey reported that only about 28% of diners had tried Spanish food. Cities like Chicago seem to be flooded with Spanish restaurants, but the rest of the country has plenty of catching up to do. "Outside of a few cities, I would say it’s very much the beginning (in popularity)," says Roberto Alvarez, a co-owner of Jaleo. "People are just beginning to experience what Spanish cuisine has to offer."
Opening the World to
Thanks to large investments in wineries and new varieties with international appeal, Spanish wines have blossomed in the last two decades.
With an influx of winemakers trained abroad, Spanish grapes have been blended with new varieties to produce the greater flavor and color concentrations wine drinkers outside of Spain tend to prefer. At the same time, more U.S. tourists have been drawn to Spain and sampled its products, bringing an appreciation for Spanish wines back home.
New York’s Solera restaurant offers an all-Spanish wine list with about 100 choices, about 10 by the glass. Chardonnay remains the safe favorite among Solera’s customers, says maitre’d and manager Ron Miller, but Albarino, a white wine from northern Spain, runs a close second. Among the reds, a reserve Riojas outsells the next choice six to one, he says.
Riojas may rule, but Albarino has won a lot of fans in the last five years, says Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain, a New York division of the Trade Commission of Spain. A list of the top 10 Spanish wines that appeared recently in a wine publication included four Albarino, something that would be unheard of a decade ago. "It’s a limited-production grape from Galicia that makes a wonderfully fruity, aromatic, good acidity white wine that goes well with seafood and white meats," Naelapaa says.
Tapas provide a perfect foil for wines by the glass, particularly sherries and cadas (sparkling wines). "The acidities are very complementary and they match up quite well," Miller notes. He sees guests growing more willing to take chances with less-familiar wines. "They’re looking more at sherries and montillas rather than shying away from them," he says.
Many restaurants favor Spanish wines because of their affordability. But something less-well known about them, Naelapaa says, is their drinkability. Spanish wineries build in a longer aging period. "The aging has been done for you somewhere else, and they’re ready to be uncorked tonight," she says.
Couple these exciting wines with Spain’s passionate foods, and the future of the cuisine looks bright.