Monday, October 26, 2009

Tapella and the Small Journeys into Flavors

My interest in Spanish cuisine was piqued by the television series Spain…On the Road Again, which had actress Gwyneth Paltrow and chef Mario Batali going around Spain, tasting the dishes, and thoroughly enjoying the journey and life in general. I always saw scenes of the two and their friends eating and having conversations. It sounds mundane, but it was actually engaging and quite intriguing. Food became not just something to take in for nourishment, but something romantic, gathering people together and enabling them to experience new sensations.

My own encounter with Spanish food has been haphazard and rare, surprising in a country with a long history of Spanish colonization. Usually, the “Spanish” food I ate had been modified, its spirit trickling into the Filipino dishes inundated with sauces and savored incognizant of its origins. The Philippine dining scene, which is not really vibrant, only offers a handful of Spanish restaurants. Señor Alba’s, Guernica and Casa Armas are among the more known.

As new and more sophisticated malls crop up in Metro Manila, strips of eating places also appear featuring new restaurants that can be exciting. An the Greenbelt mall complex in Makati City, new restaurants have opened around its magnificently manicured garden.

Opened just a few months ago, on May 29, Tapella Restaurant quickly began to attract attention as the best Spanish restaurant in the complex. Its reputation may owe to the fact that it is owned by Spanish-Filipino restaurateur Francisco Cacho Jr. and his chef wife Alexandra Cacho, who operate Gaudí, a much-acclaimed and awarded Spanish restaurant at Greenbelt 3 and Serendra.

While Gaudi is “formal” or fine-dining, Tapella is more casual. Casual can also describe the servings of the food: Relatively small portions that can be shared and without delineation between appetizer and entrée. This is the idea of the so-called “cocina en miniature.” Also the restaurant’s menu is designed for people on the go, who has no time to sit down for big meals.

It may seem that this is not good way to eat. But it is actually healthy — breaking meals into smaller portions and eating throughout the day, breaking the three-meals-a-day format. There is nothing hurried about the place either. The interior is elegant and simple, in colors of beige and white, accented by black-and-white photographs. Overlooking the Greenbelt garden, the restaurant can hold about 50 diners inside and outside where there is an outdoor bar.

Tapella’s food does not scrimp on quality and taste. Its name is an indication of its specialties — tapas, which are roughly “finger foods,” and paella. According to chef Cacho, Spanish food has changed over the years, as well as people’s eating habits. In Tapella, the chef who hails from the Basque region gathered dishes from different parts of Spain, merging the traditional and the modern, and serving them in consideration of the changing lifestyle of people. There is consciousness now on healthy eating, thus the dishes are less greasy. Also, good products are more accessible. But the core of what makes food and its eating great is still intact. The menu, in English and Spanish, shows Cacho’s gastronomic motto: “Start with a traditional base. Pour an infusion of unique contrasting flavors and a spoonful of intense passion, a dash of talent and a sprig of innovation. Finish off with disconcerting textures and illusion.”

In an afternoon before its opening, we got know what Cacho was talking about as she prepared for us delectable samplers starting with an Andalucian specialty, white garlic and almond soup, served in a shooter glass (P70). It can be taken in one gulp, but the flavors — tangy, creamy and rich — coat the tongue like a soft and heavy blanket, offset by bits of almost and hints fruitiness, grapes actually. It is a good complement for cocido meat on fluted bread (P210) and Camembert cheese with caramelized onion on fluted bread (P180), both surprisingly simple and delicious.

Other “soup shooters” worth trying are the cold tomato soup and beef tenderloin salpicao with white beans. The chewy fluted bread is also topped with Cantabrian anchovies; and chatka, mayo and lettuce. You can also have pork loin, pimiento and bacon; and roast beef with Dijon mustard on crusty bread.

Other tapas served were chorizo stewed in red wine (P245) and the octopus with paprika, salt and virgin olive oil (P280). Strong and salty, the chorizo can be eaten with bread or rice. The octopus dish is a curious one. White circles of sliced octopus tentacles were laid on slices of potatoes and sprinkled with salt and paprika. The octopus was surprisingly tender, not chewy at all, with a subtle flavor. The paprika provided the sting. The potato was a perfect base.

Other tapa selections include grilled items (pork, Moroccan chicken, scallop and shrimp skeweres), items with eggs (fried eggs scramble with potatoes and chistorra sausage; fried eggs scramble with fresh duck foie; and traditional Spanish omelet); potages and casseroles in earth pan or plate (tripe and chick pea stew; Asturian white bean, pork and chorizo stew; salted codfish with piquillo peppers and tomato; and certified Angus beef meatballs with almond sauce); traditional fried items in olive oil (cocido meat croquettes; Spanish salami croquettes; vegetable garden shoestring with fried egg; and Serrano ham and cheese bites in phyllo pastry) and miscellaneous items (Rioja style potatoes and chorizo; alioli potatoes; clams in fisherman’s style; marinated fresh anchovies; Iberian cold cuts platter; and Spanish cheese platter).

The heavier group in the menu includes soup and salad combinations, paellas and rice dishes, pasta, seafood and “mountain specials.”

For seafood, we had calamari with black ink batter “el Bulli” (P255) and garlic sautéed shrimp the modern way (P260). The squid was definitely an eye-catcher. Rings of squid were dipped in batter and its own black ink and then deep-fried. The result was a dish that looked like lumps of charcoal and a more flavorful calamari. The “el Bulli” in the name I presumed was the origin of this style of cooking — the famous haute-cuisine restaurant El Bulli in Catalonia.

Try also other seafood items such as batter-coated fried fish with roasted pimiento peppers, Malaga-style fried fish platter and sautéed eels and shrimps with crispy garlic bits.

Another interesting dish is the certified Angus beef prime rib (grilled according to the methods of Villagodio), a “mountain special.” Slices of the beef are grilled on a small hot plate sitting atop a burner, the size perfect for the table, invented by the chef herself. Other mountain specials are garlic chicken; pork ham and cheese roulade in white sauce; and grilled lamb chops with herbs.

Of course there were the paellas. We had three kinds: the picadillo paella (P650), the Greek paella (P485), and the Manchego cheese, chicken, shrimp and asparagus paella (P500).

The picadillo paella had different slices of meats. I saw a connection between it and the Filipino dish picadillo, a kind of stew of ground beef, tomato sauce and slices of white radish, potato or chayote. I haven’t found yet the connection with the word peccadillo, which means “little sins.” The Greek paella is yellowed with saffron and had salmon and white cheese. On the other hand, the Manchego cheese paella had the sheep’s milk cheese melting over rice, chicken, shrimp and asparagus. All paellas were a delight, symphonies of flavors. Other paellas on offer are creamy seafood paella, Alaskan king crab paella, vegetable paella with pesto sauce and black squid paella.

If you don’t want paella, Tapella has pasta: black fettucini with shrimps, three-flavor handkerchief pasta and vegetable cannelloni.

Tapella also has good selection of wines to further smoothen a venture into modern Spain in flavors. End this with dessert such tiramisu, Kahlua mousse, egg yolk custard, banana crepe and traditional arroz con leche, literally “rice with milk,” like champorado without the chocolate but with milk, and spiced with cinnamon and vanilla bean.

The arroz con leche can be a perfect ending, a comfort food that reminds of home. And we are made at home in Spain, if only in flavors.

Contact Information

For more information and reservations, visit Tapella, open 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., at the ground floor of Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati City or call 757-2710 to 11. Visit, or e-mail

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