I remember as a really young kid – besides Chinese food – my family did not dine out too much. My father was the classic Cranky Chinese Dad who found western restaurants baffling and expensive. It was not uncommon to hear him say after a meal at Mother Tucker’s – “Do you know how many bowls of wonton noodles we could have gotten at Hon’s for that buffet?”
His attitude did not diminish one iota my absolute craving and curiousity for new foods, especially from other countries. My mother was soft hearted when it came to matters of the stomach (but surprisingly hard-nosed about after school TV shows – I was not allowed to watch Gilligan’s Island which, for some reason, she found immoral). So it was she who took us to dimly lit Italian restaurants for our first taste of real pasta with garlicky scampi, or Indian food with spices so exotic – it literally tasted like perfume to us.
As a grown up – far away foods still speak to me, like a National Geographic for my belly. Right now, Spanish cuisine has become a real obsession, despite never having actually setting foot in Spain (the closest is dining at Jose Andre’s The Bazaar in LA). There is vibrancy in the cuisine that really speaks to me, the mix of Continental and Northern African influences intrigues to no end.
Neil Taylor (formerly of Cibo and London’s River Cafe) has decided to apply his considerable talents to Spanish food at the recently opened España Restaurant on Denman. The menu is much more freewheeling than the restaurant’s name would suggest – reflecting the gamut of Mediterranean and Moorish influences that run through Spanish cuisine (which itself a collection of strong regional culinary points of view). It’s the same fun inquisitive stance that has made Moro in London such a huge success. You’ll find hummus and baga ganoush along side serrano ham and gazpacho – all prepared with care and skill.
These padron peppers were an excercise in delicous simplicty. Grilled to a char, sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with grassy olive oil. There was an added bonus of once in a while getting a pepper with genuinely searing heat, russian roullete style. Given that we are at the end of growing season, not sure how much longer these will be on the menu.
Paella with chicken, chorizo and spinach harkens back to the days when this was a laborer’s dish, cooked out in the fields with what was on hand. Saffron has been replaced by hand ground nora peppers which gave the dish the same slightly bitter roundeness. For me, it was just as delicous as the Valencia seafood version most of us are more familiar with.
Dessert was churros and hot chocolate. The churro’s were cigar shaped affair – crisp and light, dredged in cinnamon sugar. The hot chocolate was crazy rich, with just enough sweeteness to round out the dark ganache edges.
During my childhood dining adventures with my mother, she taught me and my brother how to recognize good cooking whatever the cuisine. Good ingredients prepared with a bright liveliness, restraint balanced against exuberance, hospitality that is equal parts generosity and skill and effort. España hits these notes right on the button. You are welcomed by a casual vibe – and yet the menu and cooking has unexpected depth and vigor.
A Spanish expat was suprised to see kalimoxto on the menu, which is Coke and red wine – a drink he remembers from heading off to the beach with school friends, putting the Coke and wine into nets to be set adrift in the ocean – letting it get cold and refreshing. A real seaside drink. I think there is a kind of fearlessness in serving kalimoxoto, borne of a welcoming happy spirit. One that says “come sit down and have something really good to eat”.
1118 Denman Street, Vancouver BC
As always, Canucklehead pays for his own food and dines anonymously. He finds his Gangnam style disguise particularly effective.