Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean cuisine’

Trendy Tapas with a Tasteful Twist at Tapeo

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

511 Villeray Street (north of Berri Street)
Montreal, Quebec H2R 1H5
(514) 495-1999

Hours: Tues-Sat: 12:00 – 3:00 p.m.; 5:30 – 11:00 p.m.; Sat: 5:00 – 11:00 p.m.
Average for meal/person, excluding wine, taxes, and tip:  $25-$40
Major cards and Interac
Rating: ◊◊◊◊½ (excellent)

Bar à tapas Tapeo

Summer is finally here. Filled with sun-drenched skies, blazing hot sunshine, balmy, warm air, and bold, bright colours, the long, steamy days exude a buoyant atmosphere of carefree living. We unwind and bask in the idyllic pleasures of the season, a time for outdoor fun, from soothing dips in open air swimming pools to relaxing sunbaths and refreshing swims at golden sandy beaches; and al-fresco dining, from gourmet picnics improvised around a glass of wine to backyard barbecues planned around informal gatherings of friends. Thoughts of summer food immediately bring to mind the alluring aroma and satisfying sound of delectable meats sizzling over an open flame. At the same time, the joy of summer cuisine also conjures up romantic images reminiscent of sunny destinations and exotic, foreign flavours. I find Spanish cuisine, with its versatile and gregarious dishes which rely on fresh Mediterranean ingredients along with Arab and Latin American flavours, very fitting for light summer eating.

As an important cornerstone of Spanish lifestyle and culture, tapas, with its simple yet seductive small bites on petit plates, has become a big food trend as it has taken the gastronomic world by storm. Originating from the ancient custom of balancing a slice of bread or cured meat atop a glass of sherry to protect the sweet wine from fruit flies, the lowly, edible “covers” became gradually more elaborate and variable with fine local ingredients presented with creativity and flair throughout the diverse regions of Spain. Over time, the Spanish institution of tapas, which is an integral part of the art and culture of tapeo—the tradition of stimulating the appetite while drinking an apéritif and mingling with friends and acquaintances at different bars in town, has travelled far beyond the cultural and culinary borders of its native country and evolved into an independent, sophisticated, and colourful cuisine. The informality of tapas encourages not only conviviality, conversation, and camaraderie, but also a casual yet fun-loving style of grazing, imbibing, socializing, and sharing.

To celebrate life, friendship, and the official arrival of the summer season, my foodie friend, who has never experienced Spanish food before, and I decided, on a spontaneous whim, to wine and dine at Tapeo, a sit-down bar à tapas that I had visited early fall last year. Spontaneity can be a good thing, but there is a price for acting on the spur of the moment. When I had called to make a reservation for 7:30 p.m. that mid-afternoon, the restaurateur and co-proprietor Victor Afonso regrettably informed me that all tables for the requested time had fully been booked, even on a Tuesday evening. However, he was able to offer a table for 8:30 p.m., and I immediately accepted it without hesitation. So on that evening, which, incidentally, was the first day of the summer solstice, a hot, warm day with a mix of sunshine, clouds, and drizzle, we headed off to the trendy tapas joint in the historic district of Villeray. When my friend and I arrived at the hip haven at around 8 p.m., with the initial intention of having first a preprandial drink at the bar, Afonso greeted us cordially. Aware of my earlier phone conversation, he quickly scanned the packed ninety-seat dining room and surprisingly found us a vacant table. Such accommodating gesture was one of the many examples that brought a personal touch to the attentive service. An impressive start to our visit.

Tapas menu at Tapeo

As we sipped and enjoyed a glass of exquisite Williams and Humbert Jerez Xérès from Andalusia selected from Tapeo’s intriguing, exclusive collection of Spanish wines, about half which are privately imported vintages, we admired what restaurateur partners Victor Afonso and Sébastien Muniz had envisioned in the recently renovated and enlarged surroundings of the upscale restaurant. Set in warm beige tones punctuated with splashes of jet black and flaming hues of tangelo orange and crimson red, the simple, stylish split-level space, arranged with paper-topped and candle-lit black tables and black wood chairs, was furnished with hardwood floors, wood-lined walls, suspended light fixtures, and black wall grilles of huge, overlapping rings. Near the entranceway, an art work portraying a matador de toros graced the wall adjacent to the bar decked with an elegant floral arrangement. Written menu items framed in circles—a recurring motive in the décor—were displayed on the open blackboard wall in the back of the room, and behind, the adjoining space included a private room with a large communal table and the semi-open kitchen. As encountered on my first visit, this modern, chic locale was buzzing with infectious energy and palpable exuberance. Tapeo still continues to be a popular hot spot, and muy caliente it continues to be, for the central attraction at this über-cool eatery, is, of course, the straightforward and scrumptious food.

Octopus salad with orange supreme, yellow capsicum, cherry tomatoes, haricots verts, and Italian parsley

At the helm of the kitchen, co-owner and head chef Marie-Fleur St-Pierre, who had studied at the reputable Institut de Tourisme et d’Hôtellerie du Québec and previously put her training to work in some of the city’s finest and highly acclaimed culinary establishments, including Toqué, the now defunct Les Caprices de Nicolas, and Café Ferreira, where her avid fascination with, and pronounced passion for, Mediterranean and Hispanic cuisine were ignited, is responsible for enchanting epicures with her enticing and exciting menu which fuses quality imported Spanish ingredients with fresh, locally sourced produce. As one of the leading (and rare) female chefs in Montreal, the exceptionally talented and skilled St-Pierre, who was recently nominated for a 2011 Canadian Culinary Book Award for her cookbook Les tapas de Marie-Fleur, cultivates the art of preparing Spanish-inspired bite-sized savouries with simplicity and spontaneity. The dashing dishes, which express her personal and inventive interpretation of traditional tapas recipes, are delivered with ingenuity and intuition.

Deep-fried potato straws

It was a challenge, even on this past visit, to decide what to order from the extensive and diverse menu of tapas frias and tapas calientes designed for sharing, with highlights including the crowd-pleasing croquetas de pescado plated with caramelized red onion chutney and smoked paprika aïoli sauce; the appealingly bitter rapini sautéed with olive oil and roasted garlic; the splendid seared tilapia filet “en croûte” drizzled with lemon butter sauce, and the praiseworthy “paella à la Tapeo” filled with shrimp, calamari, mussels, fish, chorizo and azafrán-enriched bomba rice. After some deliberation and debate, we decided to partake in a selection of five savoury tapas.

As we absorbed the frivolous, vivacious ambiance and waited eagerly for our stylish small plates to arrive at our table, we nibbled on the complimentary cosas de picar. Light and relatively crisp, the deep-fried yet non-greasy pommes pailles were delightfully tasty, while the fresh loaf of ciabatta bread which was accompanied with premium quality olive oil for dipping was soul-satisfying.

Octopus salad with onion slices, potato halves, and fresh coriander shreds

Our meal of miniatures continued with a gratis pintxo, two boulettes of tender strands of braised beef crowned with a roasted red pepper sauce. Strikingly unassuming yet wonderfully flavourful, the amazing amuse-bouche served as a tantalizing prelude to the stunningly simple culinary creations—a robust blend of rustic and refined—to come.

Three of the tapas that we ordered revolved around seafood, and each one was a standout. On my previous visit, I had revelled in a sensational ensalada fria de pulpo, a medley of boiled and blanched octopus chunks, fresh orange supreme slices, grilled yellow pepper strips, fresh cherry tomato halves, blanched haricots verts pieces, and fresh Italian parsley snippets, the ensemble dressed with an orange juice reduction vinaigrette and drizzled with sherry vinegar. That evening, we also opted for the cold octopus salad cazuela, but a different version that St-Pierre had deliciously prepared. Bathed in a sauce inflected with pimentón de la Vera, the pieces of boiled-and-then-grilled molluscan meat, superbly tender, were tossed together with onion slices seasoned with smoked paprika, oven-cooked potato halves, and coarse shreds of fresh coriander. More rustic and earthy than the former dish, it was equally smashing.

Sea scallops wrapped in Forêt Noire bacon

The house specialty pétoncles au lardon has become, and continues to be, a hit item. During my earlier visit, it was completely sold out by the time my foodie companion and I were ready to order. However, that night, I was able to savour this showstopping shellfish tapas number. Pan-seared to perfection, the pair of giant sea scallops, swathed in Forêt Noire bacon, was placed in a shallow pool of quince marmalade sauce subtly tinged with apple juice and gently kissed with xérès vinegar. Succulent, smoky, savoury, and sweet, the luscious flavours and textures melded beautifully together. Exquisite.

Spanish mackerel with pear wedges, Serrano ham bits, and pear vinaigrette

In the same vein of creative and culinary brilliance, the Spanish mackerel, the “catch of the day,” took our breath away. Here, the salamander-broiled pelagic fish meat was partnered with pan-seared pear wedges, the whole spruced up with a scattering of crisp, oven-roasted jámon serrano bits and finished with a translucent pear vinaigrette. Although the eccentric marriage between the strong umami of the unctuous fish and salty ham and the delicate sweetness of the mellow pear and mild dressing seemed arrestingly strange, this audacious sweet and savoury combination worked unusually well in this phenomenal delicacy. Divine.

The next round comprised two contrasting tapas which were also terrific. To provide balance and variety to our dinner repast, the Mediterranean dish of grilled asparagus was utterly uncomplicated yet so toothsome. Glistening with olive oil, the slightly charred vegetable spears were assembled above a puddle of olive oil topped with a thin blanket of almond aïoli. Fabulous. The other tapa was a media ración of beef short ribs. Enhanced with a reduction of jus de bœuf, melting tomato pieces, and earthy lentilles du Puy and garnished with shreds of fresh Italian parsley, the assertive meat, braised for many hours, was so fork-tender that it fell off the bone. Outstanding.

Braised beef short ribs with jus de bœuf reduction, tomatoes, du Puy lentils, and Italian parsley

We enjoyed every one of the dishes so much that we neatly polished off every last morsel of food and soaked up every drop of the assorted saporous sauces from the plates with the slices of dense bread. Nothing was left to waste.

Both of us have a sweet tooth, and we succumbed to the seductive pleasure of dessert. From the short but sweet list of simple temptations which included the popular Spanish and Hispanic street food churros con chocolate and an original mousse de dátiles heightened with cinnamon and ginger biscuit pieces and capped with a piment-d’Espelette-perfumed crème Chantilly, my friend and I each chose a different dessert to round off our meal. My friend relished the sensuous Spanish specialty crema catalana. Presented in the traditional terracotta cazuela, the classic crema cremada was lighter and less rich than its French and British cousins, the crème brûlée and Trinity cream respectively. Beneath the signature brittle crust of caramelized sugar, the creamy vanilla custard concoction was softly scented with lemon zest, imparting a distinctive hint of its Moorish influence. More unconventional, the ingenious choco nougat espagnol” was an imaginative dish which united together two of Spain’s most loved sweet delicacies. A lush layer of intense, concentrated dark chocolate ganache, covered with a generous dusting of cocoa powder, was spread densely on top of a thick base of softened turrón duro, a nougat confection loaded with crunchy, roasted Marcona almonds. Served with a palate-pleasing pear coulis, the luxurious and voluptuous delight, which was not intended for the faint-hearted, was remarkably rich and sinfully intoxicating. I savoured unhurriedly each forkful of decadent indulgence, and I was in silent rapture.

Dessert of choco nougat espagnol

From the moment we stepped into the urban outpost to the moment we walked out of the place, we were pampered by the young and dynamic wait staff. Professional and courteous, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff were attentive and responsive to our needs. They knew every detail of the menu inside out and assisted us with honest suggestions regarding wine and food selection and pairings. Conscientious and discreet, they worked the floor swiftly and smoothly, clearing empty dishes and plates, changing tableware between each “service,” refilling water glasses, replenishing the bread serving platter, removing the brown paper table cover prior to the dessert course, and asking diners if the food was to their liking. It was a busy night for the bustling wait staff, but every detail was attended to with care and diligence.

Our brief culinary journey that night was another exhilarating and enlightening experience to be remembered as the alchemy of Tapeo’s passionate, inspirational cuisine awakened our senses, romanced our palates, and nourished our soul. In an enthralling environment replete with unabashed conviviality, spirited bonhomie, and ineffable alegría de vivir inherent in the Spanish tapas culture, we savoured life in small bites. As we returned to our roots of simplicity and purity, we embraced and enjoyed these colourful and flavourful moments in life. Such engaging and enriching little pleasures warrant another return trip—or a few of them—and I plan again to “tapear” and to discover other pequeños placeres de la vida at the lively and vibrant bar de tapas Tapeo in Montreal.

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