Sun, sand and sea hold not much motivation for me, but if great food is on the cards, my ears perk up and tongue salivates awaiting promised pleasures. Having eaten at Restaurante Monastrell and having had an enlightening food experience there, I made a promise to Chef Maria Jose that I would return to eat at her tapas bar next door. Return I did, twice.
Now you must be wondering what moron would rather eat than lounge at the seaside right? Well, it was middle of summer, hotter than Singapore and just the perfect conditions for getting that tanned to the correct shade of skin cancer. No thanks, I’d rather eat and have a cold beer.
This beast greets you on entry and behind lie glorious legs of Jamon, sweet sweet porky nectar of the Gods of which I shall built altars for and pray to.
This deceivingly small space actually opens up at the back with 2 levels of seating. This place is packed to the rafters every night.
This being the Spanish Mediterranean, seafood is impeccable and almost like a religion here. On another visit here, we had in-season Espardenyas a la plancha which was shockingly good in its simplicity. Espardenyas is sea cucumber and I had not known then what it was. Cooked over a hot plancha, sizzling olive oil infused with a generous helping of garlic and chillis was poured over. The texture was stringy in appearance like flank steak but amazingly tender but firm at the same time, just like squid but the flavour…my god…the flavour. Beautiful char grilled flavours intermingled with the sweet tasting flesh to send you into seafood heaven. Having only ever had jelly-like stewed sea cucumbers, I need to hunt down some fresh ones here in the UK and re-live this taste experience.
As usual, I let them decide what they wanted to serve me and sat back to be delighted by one of my favourite dishes, Moules Meuniere, or mussels with white wine sauce. Isn’t this French, you ask? Well, it well may be, but there is an old school Ecuadorian dish that is cooked in a similar manner, but eaten with a dose of salsa. Ecuador………Spanish speaking country…..Spanish colony…….you get my drift.
The mussels tasted like they were just plucked from the sea and the white wine sauce was a beautiful liaison of mussel juice, wine, herbs and butter. I had to force myself not to dip the bread into the sauce to save space for the courses to come!
Whoever said Paella could only be made with seafood? This vegetable version was equally packed full of flavour as well as the added benefit of being really good for you too! What more can you ask for? In season vegetables at their peak, cooked to perfection to encapsulate the Spanish culinary ethic in one fell swoop. Its not always about meat and seafood in this country as everything is given equal respect.
My kryptonite appeared in the form of Jamon Iberico, thinly sliced pieces of heaven that melt in the mouth, forever scarring my life knowing it will never ever get better than this outside of Spain.
To my surprise, a simple, everyday Pan con Tomate came next. Very crispy, airy bread with olive oil and tomatoes. It was deceptive in its simplicity as the wonderfully floral and green tasting olive oil went well with the perfectly ripe and flavourful tomatoes. We ate this every Sunday morning for breakfast at Pasteleria Totel, but it was NEVER this good. Simplicity belying the love and care taken to bring this to the table, this simple Pan con Tomate is a triumph of nature.
Croquetas de Jamon are so Spanish that it had to find its way to me somehow. This was the first croquet I had thus far, and to me was over-seasoned, which probably has more to do with local tastes.
Having eaten artichokes in Singapore, I’ve known them to be tasteless, bland and not worth the fuss that Europeans make them up to be. Well, the air journey to Asia must have converted their sugars into starch, for these artichokes a la plancha were sweet, flavourful and damn tasty! Once again, the main ingredient spoke the loudest, and changed how I view an artichoke
Showcasing the natural sweetness of scallops, this gratineed entry was a classic preparation technique executed to perfection.
How can this meal be complete without Chef Maria Jose’s acclaimed ‘Papas Bravas’, a concoction of Saffron potatoes with paprika. It is both saffrony and spicy, a real taste treat! The recipe follows:
Papas Bravas – Saffron Potatoes
1.5 tsp Saffron pistils
900g Starchy type potato, like the Russet Burbank (Starchy potatoes are usually long with rougher skin)
340g Extra virgin olive oil
- Peel and cut potatoes into 1/2″ cubes
- Microwave saffron on high for half a minute or until you can crush it into a fine powder
- Place potatoes, saffron and just enough water to cover
- Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer for 5 minutes
- Save 1 tablespoon of saffron water for alioli and drain
- Spread the potato pieces on paper towels to dry
- Fry them at 180 degrees celsius until golden brown
For the Chilli Oil
1 tbs Spanish Paprika (Hot one, not the sweet one)
60g Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Heat oil and paprika over low heat for 10 mins and set aside.
For the Aioli
2 Garlic cloves, minced
50g Egg (Approx. 1 egg)
1 tsp Lemon juice
280g Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
- Blend lemon juice, egg and garlic togather till smooth
- While still blending, drizzle in olive oil slowly to make a mayonnaise
- Season to taste
- Drizzle fried saffron potatoes with chilli oil
- Serve with aioli
Crunchy fried baby squid, brimming with freshness and fried to a crispy perfection. This is the perfect bar food to go with a pint of beer.
Another classically Spanish dish, Gambas al Ajillo, or prawns with garlic. The star of this show are the red prawns, or Gambas Rojos, that have comically large heads and smaller, but oh-so-damn-sweet flesh. These taste a world apart from the run of the mill grey prawns or tiger prawns we find back in Asia. This is perhaps how a prawn should truly taste like. Sauteed in olive oil, garlic and perhaps a dried guindilla (A kind of chilli), this is still one of my favourite seafood preparations to this day.
I guess they were really proud of the quality of tuna they could get, but unfortunately, I was not after Japanese food, so this tuna tataki was not really my cup of tea outside of Japan (I rarely eat Japanese food outside of Japan). The tuna was good quality and with this, rounded off the meal.
A quick trip into the kitchen and a short cooking lesson ensued in the finer art of preparing Paella. Its all in the seafood fumet as the adage goes, “Good quality in, good quality out.”
The arroz bomba is sauteed with aromatics for flavour as well as to maximise absorption of the stock. Following this step, the stock is added and it is left to simmer away undisturbed until it magically transforms into paella.
If I were to ever one day own a restaurant, it would be exactly like this. Jamon and salad counter out front with a bar area, and kitchen at the back churning out food with a focus on ingredients at the peak of their season prepared simply without much fuss. If I cannot afford Restaurante Monastrell the next time I am in Alicante, you can find me here.