Mad about tapas

Some say tapas, some say "small plates" - but whatever you call it, the trend of eating food in bite-sized portions as opposed to individual courses is on the rise. But when even dimsum is labelled Asian tapas, it's enough to raise the hackles of Spanish food purists tired of seeing a distinctive cuisine watered down to its current one-word-fits-all state.

By definition, "tapas" originates from the Spanish word "tapa" which means to cover, where a slice of bread or meat was used to cover a glass of sherry to prevent flies or dirt from entering it. It evolved into a unique dining culture for the Spanish, who had the habit of snacking on little bites at tapas bars before going on to a proper dinner at 10pm or so.

But with the influx of tourists and Spanish food's hold on the culinary world, tapas can mean anything you want.

At the eight-week-old modern-Asian tapas bar Cato, one of its owners, Sharma Das, says they had carefully considered whether it was a good idea to use the word "tapas" before opening their eatery. He says: "I think that's the thing that bothers a lot of us - that it's Spanish, so if you're not selling Spanish stuff then you're not keeping true to the word. But it's just a word. I don't feel like it's wrong to call it tapas if you're not serving Spanish food, people just understand the word a bit better if you do use it."

He adds: "Five years ago you'd have to say it's a sharing platter, and people know it'll be a couple of dishes and we can share it. Whereas now, tapas cuts it really easy. Calling it small plates doesn't have the element of culture behind it."

However, Maria Alonso, assistant restaurant manager at contemporary Spanish restaurant Catalunya, believes that authentic "tapas" should refer to something made with Spanish products, and in small quantities. She explains: "They are using the term 'tapas' too loosely, because they use the word to explain "small plates for sharing". This is the objective for tapas, to try as many varieties of dishes as possible. However, that to me is only a style of eating. The real meaning of tapas for me (also because I'm Spanish) should only refer to small plates of Spanish cuisine by a Spanish restaurant. Authentic tapas should be Spanish because that is where it originated."

That's why she says all the tapas at Catalunya are 100 per cent Spanish, save for adjustments in salt levels, which most Spanish restaurants in Singapore have had to make to cater to Singaporeans' relatively lower salt tolerance.

As for chef Maria Sevillano of the home-style Spanish restaurant My Little Spanish Place, her idea of tapas culture is bar-hopping with a group of friends. Hailing from Salamanca, Spain, she explains: "Every tapas bar has a different identity... Depending on what we want to eat with our beer, we go from place to place. At each place we usually only have one beer and one tapas."

That is one bit of the culture that is often lost in Singapore, as most locals prefer to sit in one tapas restaurant and have an entire meal. Chef Sevillano attributes this to the cost of food here in Singapore, where tapas can range from about S$8 per plate to S$30, compared to Spain - where each plate mostly costs just a couple of euros.

She has no issue with the trend in general however, and adds: "As long as they don't pretend or mislead that it is authentic Spanish tapas, then that is fine. It is a compliment, not an insult."

It's not a trend that is going to disappear any time soon. As chef Daniel Chavez of the Spanish restaurant OLA Cocina Del Mar points out, tapas is very similar to the Asian "family style" of eating. "Nowadays, it is preferred to have sample tasting portions of many dishes instead of big a la carte servings. This trend of tapas in my opinion has a long way still to go, as the format is very approachable, casual, and relaxed."

Agreeing with him is Mr Das of Cato, who believes the term "tapas" is here to stay because "it's not a style of food, a taste of food, or a flavour trend. It's a kind of culture".

So if you're planning a weekend of tapas-hopping, there are enough new players in town to satisfy every craving.

Homey Spanish fare

My Little Spanish Place @ Boat Quay
54 Boat Quay
Open Mon to Sat (including PH).
Noon - 2.30pm, 5pm - midnight

Home-style Spanish fare is not easily found in Singapore, at least when compared with some of its more popular European cousins. So fans of the cuisine would be glad to know that the owners of My Little Spanish Place in Bukit Timah have recently opened a similar concept in a much more central location, just along the Singapore River.

The 60-seater restaurant is run by chef Maria Sevillano from Salamanca, Spain, and Edward Esmero from the Philippines, and features a new menu with dishes inspired by the Balearic Islands - an archipelago just off Eastern Spain.

"We opened My Little Tapas Bar about one year ago at Club Street, so it's more a drinking place, while Bukit Timah is more a restaurant. Here, we wanted to have a mix of both places - you can have lunch or dinner but also a nice al fresco for informal dishes," explains chef Sevillano.

Some of the new signature dishes include a Fideua Verde (S$38 for small, S$66 for large) which is similar to paella but uses short noodles instead of Bomba rice and cooked in a special in-house herb blend, and the Secreto Iberico (S$28) which is seared Iberico pork that's smoked with applewood and marinated with thyme and garlic.

Of course, like any good Spanish restaurant, My Little Spanish Place @ Boat Quay also has a range of popular traditional Spanish tapas items such as the Coca de Pimientos y Anchoas (S$16) which is a Catalan flatbread toast with onions, peppers, anchovies and Manchego cheese, the Gambas al Ajillo (S$16) comprising garlic prawns cooked in olive oil and chilli pepper, as well as a Pulpo de la Casa (S$36 per 100g) where a grilled octopus leg is seasoned with pimenton, sea salt and olive oil.

Says chef Sevillano: "When we first opened My Little Spanish Place five years ago, the tapas culture was so new, so remote... Today, things have evolved so much that it's come to represent a dining style that is trendy and convivial... I am glad to have the 'tapas' term used more widely, as it is in a way a validation of how far Spanish cuisine has come."

Classic Peruvian

Tiger's Milk
28 Ann Siang Road
Open Mon to Thurs, 5pm - 1am,
Fri to Sat, 5pm - 2am. Closed on Sun

With a name like Tiger's Milk, what else could the rooftop bar and grill on top of The Club hotel specialise in but Peruvian cuisine? After all, the term refers to the sour citrus-based marinade that is part of ceviche - the Latin American classic.

Their menu comes from a consultant chef - Hajime Kasuga, who was born and bred in Lima, Peru and explains that "Peruvian food is a very exciting Latin American cuisine with influences from Spain, Africa and Asia" where the "elements of these different cuisines' flavours and textures come together".

Some of the small plates available include marinated green and black olives soaked in olive oil with fresh rosemary (S$9) and hearts of palm which is the core of the cabbage palm tree tossed with diced tomatoes, parmesan and lemon juice (S$14).

They also feature seven different types of ceviches: a classic seabass with red onions and burnt corn (S$14), tiger prawn with mangoes and jalapenos (S$16), and king oyster mushroom with sliced asparagus (S$12).

Grilled items on the menu are cooked over an open parilla grill (Argentinian grill), and are also served in sharing portions, such as the octopus and chorizo with salsa criolla and sweet potato (S$24), and lamb hearts (S$16), which according to the chef, are traditionally prepared with beef instead, as a street delicacy in Peru.

Tiger's Milk is run by the owners of Harry's International Pte Ltd, who thought it was the perfect time to introduce Peruvian food to Singaporeans since they are getting more well-travelled and adventurous.

Says chef Hajime: "Our whole menu is designed for communal dining where everyone can feel free to share. This grazing concept is similar to tapas, which is unique to Spanish cuisine."

No-frills dining

237 South Bridge Road
Open Tues to Sat, 5pm - midnight

For the owners of Cato, the main mission is no-frills dining. That's why the menu at their eight-week-old eatery in Chinatown serves mostly simple tapas that are easy to share over drinks and conversation.

Dash Nalin, who is the main culinary brains behind the operation and one of seven business partners, chose to serve modern-Asian cuisine at their two-storey establishment simply because he wanted the food to be as local and relatable as possible.

"What I'm familiar with is Asian food - it applies to all of us because we grew up eating at hawker centres. I figured mod-Asian gives us an opportunity to showcase that kind of Asian ingredients, but done using familiar Western techniques, so it'll be very close to home," he explains.

For example, their selection of tapas includes deep-fried chicken bits that are cooked cereal prawn-style with oats (S$14), mussels in tom yam, curry, or garlic sauce with fries (S$18), and their bestselling crispy baby squid which is covered in a Thai-style glaze and toasted seaweed (S$12).

This is served both upstairs and downstairs, but best complements the drinks available at the bar on the second floor, where diners can select from a range of over 60 small-batch craft beers and spirits from around the world.

On the other hand, the more serious diner can eat in the restaurant space on the first floor, picking from seven main dishes such as a duck leg confit with braised potatoes and french beans (S$24), tom yum prawn risotto (S$24), and a pork rillettes burger, served with a sunny side up and fries (S$22).

"I think the idea of tapas is for a group of people to get together and order a variety of things. What people are looking for is a good night out with friends, having fun and being loud without having to bother about a really complicated kind of menu," says Mr Nalin.

"Of course, we want to do food that's really good, but sometimes people just want something to nibble on."

Tapas paired with sake

80 South Bridge Road, #01-01
Open Mon to Sat, 4.30pm - midnight.
Closed on Sun

The word "Boruto" means "vault" in Japanese, that's why Patrick Tan found it to be the perfect name for his tapas and sake bar which is housed in a two-storey space that was once a bank, and comes with a bomb-proof vault on the second floor.

There, he houses up to 30 high-end bottles of sake that can cost up to S$2,200 per bottle that customers can request to view.

It was one of the main things that appealed to him about the location, says Mr Tan, who also runs a 2 1/2-year-old Japanese robatayaki restaurant - Tamashii Robataya - where he is the chef.

Of course, Boruto also serves a range of 48 different Japanese-fusion tapas dishes that according to Mr Tan "must pair well with the sake".

He says: "Traditional Japanese tapas are usually yakitori, but we're doing something different - we use Japanese ingredients and serve them in a Spanish way, or with a local twist."

For instance, one dish is his Tako a la Espanol (S$30.80), which is a grilled octopus leg with smoked potato, sweet paprika and chilli salsa. Both the octopus and potato are imported from Japan, but the style of cooking is Spanish, says Mr Tan.

Another example he cites is the Zuwai Gani Sausage (S$30.80), which is made of meat from a Japanese queen crab with a reduced crab bisque and toast - inspired by a visit to a small Italian joint owned by a Japanese chef when he was travelling in Sapporo about two years ago.

It sounds like a Japanese izakaya of course, but for Mr Tan, the use of the word "tapas" is his way of steering clear of any preconceived notions of what a traditional Japanese izakaya should serve.

He explains: "This is definitely not a traditional izakaya - I want to do something different from other people. Even my sashimi is not traditional at all - I won't serve it to you with soya sauce. Instead, I serve it in a cube form, with a soya sauce molecule on top. So it's the same plate of sashimi, but you'll eat it in a different way."

Open to non-members

Tapas 39
39 Duxton Hill
Open Mon to Fri, 8.30am - 12am;
Sat to Sun, 10am - 12am

What's a members-only club really like? To get a sneak peek into Club 39, a four-storey shophouse on Duxton Hill, check out Tapas 39, their newly opened 25-seater restaurant and bar which welcomes members and non-members alike.

Executive chef Rodrigo Guerrero, Chilean by birth, has been bitten by the travel bug and using elements from his experiences all over the world, has created a menu that can be best described as "Modern Tapas".

His Chargrilled Octopus with Mashed Potatoes topped with Ikura and Chorizo Oil (S$30), inspired by the flavours of Japan and Spain, is one of the bestsellers at Tapas 39. Another popular item is the Sea Urchin Au Gratin topped with Champagne (S$20). A firm believer in procuring his produce locally, chef Guerrero says: "Most, if not all, my ingredients are sourced within 100 kilometres from Singapore."

The stance seems to have garnered impressive customer loyalty. Head of memberships and marketing Kelly Bogaert says: "The people who dine with us keep coming back, and I think it's the balance of flavours in each dish along with the quality and freshness of the ingredients that's responsible."

Choosing to offer tapas seemed a no-brainer. Owner Andrea Radrizzani offers: "Cooking in smaller portions is good for people to taste more specialities, and it's especially good when you have a chef as creative as ours."

Ms Bogaert adds: "In Singapore, the locals are used to sharing their food. If you look at how almost all Chinese people have a Lazy Susan at home so each dish can be enjoyed by everyone, it's clear that communal food is embedded in their enjoyment of it. That's why the tapas trend is doing so well and will continue to grow in Singapore."

Brand new cuisine

B1-01/02 Chijmes, 30 Victoria Street
Open Mon to Thurs and Sun,
5pm - 1am; Fri and Sat, 5pm - 2am

Only two weeks old, restaurant Raven, helmed by Urban City Hospitality Group (UCHG), which also manages cocktail bar House of Dandy and bottle service club Rakes, has already come up with their own cuisine.

UCHG's Group director of marketing & PR Mandy Lynn explains: "Raven offers an all-new cuisine, 'The New Americas'; North and South American comfort food with an Asian twist."

Crafted by head chef Sam Chablani, the menu includes dishes such as The Raven Burger "Cemita" (S$22) which holds 180g of beef chuck glazed with chipotle, avocado and chorizo cream, topped with red onions and corn chips, and the Crispy Nori Wrapped Salmon with a panko crust and umami ponzu sago (S$29).

Shying away from the term tapas, Raven prefers to use the term "small plates" instead. Ms Lynn says: "The term 'tapas' has been used quite loosely. For me, tapas are small plates of savoury Spanish dishes, while small plates are exactly what the name suggests."

The 180-seater restaurant has been outfitted with Argentinean leather booths indoors, while the outdoor garden concept patio caters to those averse to air-conditioning.

Ensuring Singapore's humidity doesn't dampen your enthusiasm for the al fresco surroundings is group bartender Ryan, whose creations include the Cucumber Rickey (S$17), a tipple which contains cucumber-infused Hendrick's gin, Benedictine DOM, and freshly squeezed lime and tonic water, and the Agave Smash (S$17), a blend of Patron Silver tequila, Drambuie, agave and fresh lemon.

For Raven, the decision to serve small plates was an easy one. Ms Lynn explains: "They allow more variety and give chefs more freedom to come up with innovative dishes. We feel that the size of the items mean that customers will be more likely to get out of their comfort zones and try something new as well."

Two in one

10 Gemmill Lane
Open Mon to Thurs, 11.30am - 3pm and 6.30pm - 10pm;
Fri, 11.30 - 3pm and 6.30pm - 11pm;
Sat, 6.30pm - 11pm;
Sun, 10.30am - 3pm

In today's world, being multi-functional is an admirable trait, and what better way to set yourself apart from the thousands of restaurants opened annually in Singapore than to serve two purposes?

Comfortably seating 30 people, Delicacy on Gemmill Lane is a delicatessen by day and a full-service tapas bar by night. Director and co-owner of Food & Wine Merchants (FWM), the parent company of Delicacy, Cherry Chai says: "Our concept of a deli-cum-restaurant is such that you can buy our products for your home during the day, and at night, our chef can demonstrate all the things you can use them for."

Some of their most popular dishes are the Walnut Croquetas with Truffle Mayo (S$9) and the Mini Wagyu Beef Slider with Piquillo Peppers, Capers and Goat Cheese with Aioli Fries (S$15). However, because most of the produce is seasonal, you can expect slight variations in the menu depending on the time of year.

While not strictly Spanish, Delicacy serves Mediterranean-style tapas with a heavy Spanish influence, as chef Victor Caballe Molina hails from Catalonia.

FWM imports their wines, beers, cheeses and cold cuts from Spain and other countries in Europe. The idea to start not just a cafe but also a delicatessen stemmed from a conversation Ms Chai had with her two business partners last December.

The 29-year-old recalls: "We realised that in Singapore, delis are very commercial, and the produce you get is readily available at local supermarkets too. We wanted to focus on artisanal produce, something a little more special."

The reason Delicacy, which opened on July 20, focuses on tapas or "small bite-sized pieces" is simple: "We want people to taste all the food we have; not just one thing at a time. Because the dishes come in smaller sizes, people who are health-conscious have more control over what they eat too," says Ms Chai.

This article was first published on September 19, 2015.
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