Last week I visited a new tapas bar in Cape Town with much anticipation. It left me wondering what tapas had become. Wasn’t tapas the cuisine that was on a one way trip to dinner domination? Hadn’t it been taken up so many notches that we went out for tapas and left totally full and satisfied and in awe at the various flavours conjured up into a single dish? That’s the tapas I know and love. And yes we can’t all be equated to those on Barcelona's Michelin Star guide, but surely we can keep with the program and not pass off a single "Asian-inspired" minute prawn skewer as a tapas dish?
I reminisce of my time in Barcelona, eating tapas at a bustling market, prepared right in front of me, and the tiny excuse for a kitchen churning out dishes to a salivating crowd. That is real skill, making good food in a make-shift kitchen, and yet some places here can’t even get it right when they have all the resources behind them.
During that same trip I was fortunate enough to visit Tickets, Ferran and Albert Adrià’s tapas restaurant which quite literally blew my mind, as one would expect. But what struck me about this place - besides the outstanding food inventions - was the fact that they tailored their offerings to suit us. We were four diners, and we got served as such - each dish having four components so we could happily share. That’s so important with tapas because the objective is to share, so a dish should enable this.
Tapas originally were there to serve a period between lunch and dinner as it’s customary in Spain to eat later. So yes, they can be considered a snack to get you through to dinner and to accompany drinks, but they have definitely come much further than this. Look at The Pot Luck Club or Fork or La Parada in Cape Town where tapas has become the main event, and if it is going to be the main event, the food needs to be as considered as a main meal. It is more tricky with tapas because one plate is not a filler, so if it's bad, a diner is that much more disappointed because there are no chips or rice to fill you up.
On this particular night where myself and some friends found ourselves so disappointed, we felt taken for a complete ride with expensive food that was mockingly puny, lacked imagination and a menu that seemed ill-considered. We later found ourselves at Clarke’s munching on those fail-safe refried fries. All was not lost.
Later in the week, my faith in Cape Town tapas was fully restored after a visit to Chef’s Warehouse. I hadn’t been in ages besides a couple of visits to the shop mainly to see the chocolate lab, Bailey who hangs outside. What had I been doing?! Chef’s Warehouse is as good as ever, and perhaps the best tapas offering in Cape Town. This is because the chefs know how to play with flavours and textures, giving each dish a unique character; presentation is also properly executed and dishes are assembled just as promised: for two.
Friends of mine had been the week before and enjoyed an entirely different menu, and judging from Liam Tomlin’s Instagram, the dishes change weekly, now that’s special. No wonder Tomlin’s restaurant business is expanding as fast as Bree Street, the guy has serious vision.
With so many places in Cape Town getting small portions of food so right, i.e. the aforementioned restaurants as well as Mulberry & Prince, there isn’t space for mediocrity, even if the offering is simply bar snacks, which is perfectly fine. Bar snacks are food too, and should taste just as good as any other meal. Tapas, small plates, bar snacks, whatever the case may be - I hope they continue to get better with time as the potential and realised talent in Cape Town’s restaurant scene is boiling over.
What are your thoughts on the tapas scene in Cape Town? Let us know in the comments section below!
- Ceili McGeever