It took a puzzlingly long time for Japan to catch on to the pleasures of the taperia. It should be a perfect fit since, after all, the exquisite Iberian custom of slowly whiling away the evening with tapas and drinks, one dish and one glass at a time, is so close in spirit to the izakaya tradition.
These days, of course, the tapas ethos is finally becoming embedded — in Tokyo at least — and for that we must be eternally grateful to the Iberico pigs of Spain. For it is their delectable meat, especially when cured to produce the wonderful jamon serrano Iberico hams, that has opened the eyes of local gourmets to the true potential of Spanish cuisine. And it has only been since imports of these cured hams became legal five years back or so that taperia have really been able to take flight in the country.
Such were our musings as we made our way east across the Sumida River to Monzen-Nakacho. Popularly known as Mon-naka, this low-rise shitamachi (downtown) area has a long tradition of bars and izakaya. It is also a vibrant residential neighborhood, making it exactly the right setting for Spain Iberico Bar Mon-Naka, the latest in the growing stable of tapas bars operated by the excellent Spain Club group.
The look is smart but casual, with the entrance marked by a wrought-iron portico and jaunty red-and-yellow doormat. The ground floor has the archetypal taperia layout: a counter large enough for half a dozen people perched on bar stools, plus a few tables for those who feel safer drinking closer to ground level. It feels cozy and welcoming, the sort of place you can settle into comfortably for an hour or three. There is also a larger dining room on the second floor, where good value full-course meals are served.
We were more in the mood to nibble and dabble, so we settled in downstairs. Even here, the food menu is substantial, featuring both simple tapas snacks and heartier main dishes prepared to order, with specials of the day chalked onto a blackboard that is brought to your table.
We started out, as is the requisite modus operandi, with glasses of Pedro Romano manzanilla — an excellent crisp-dry sherry aged five years in the barrel that is still not widely available in Tokyo — and a selection of tapas.
When the simple things are done well, then you know you’re in good hands. The ensalada de polpo y patata con alioli (potato salad with octopus) had plenty of garlic in the alioli mayonnaise. The tortilla espan~a (Spanish omelet) was surprisingly sophisticated. And unlike at too many bars that proudly display Spanish hams on their counters, here the slivers of meat on our plate of mixed Iberico charcuterie tasted absolutely fresh.
Along with slices of lomo (think Spanish salami) and paprika-rich chorizo (not too peppery), there were two kinds of jamon serrano. One had been aged merely a year; the other was premium Iberico bellota, the Rolls Royce of Spanish hams, from acorn-fed black hogs, with its beautiful dark-red color and deep savory-aromatic flavor.
If the ingredients here are in good shape and the flavors authentic, that is in no small part due to resident chef Cesar Cristobal. He’s been working at Spain Bar restaurants for several years now — we first came across him at the Roppongi branch (it’s since changed its name and is no longer part of the group) — and he delivers his native cuisine with great skill.
At Iberico Bar Mon-Naka, one of his primary duties is at the plancha griddle, on which he turns out delectable dishes of sizzling pork. There is a range of selections to choose between, all from premium Iberico pigs, of course — from organ meats (heart, liver, tripe) to regular cuts, some lean (ask for lomo), others considerably fattier. We particularly enjoyed the shoulder cut known in Spanish as secreto, so named because it was considered so tasty that locals didn’t want the word to get out. It is excellent, the porcine equivalent of succulent chu-toro tuna.
Not only is the pork imported directly by the Spain Bar group, so is much of its wine. Along with such noted names as Protos (an excellent Ribeiro del Duero, here offered in three different levels of quality), it also stocks several value-for-money bottles from less fashionable regions, such as the Liberalia Quattro (from Toro) picked out for us by Shoichiro Sato, the sommelier and floor manager.
Nothing gets lost in translation for the locals: Iberico a la plancha is nothing more or less than teppanyaki, albeit garnished with chopped apple in a saffron-rich mayonnaise (a very nice touch) rather than a soy-sauce glaze.
The same goes for the meals served upstairs, where the centerpiece of the full-course meals is Iberico pork shabu-shabu. Plates of thinly sliced premium pork are brought to your table and you cook them by lightly dipping them in a casserole of broth simmering on your hot-plate.
Needless to say, these cross-cultural adaptations are proving popular with the Mon-Naka crowd. Iberico Bar is no less busy on Saturdays and Sundays than it is on weekdays, as local families embrace an ambience and eating style that is foreign and yet so familiar.
Tapping three more
Despite the name, La Taperia offers a lot more than just tapas. Most customers at Chef Carlos Berrocal’s welcoming basement restaurant settle in for full meals. But he also has a small stand-up counter where you can sip sherry while nibbling through his substantial menu of (mostly) Castilian cuisine.
Berrocal’s albondigas meatballs and tortilla (cooked to order) are excellent. And his pinchos of duck liver topped with gently warmed jamon serrano is out of this world, especially paired with a glass of aged oloroso sherry.
La Taperia, Stream Yotsuya B1, 3-3 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3353-8003; www.la-taperia.com; nearest station Yotsuya-Sanchome (Marunouchi Line). Open 5:30-11 p.m.; closed Sun. Most credit cards; English spoken.
With its heavy wood furniture, dusty sherry barrels and massive faux-Goya decor, Casa del Bueno’s cavernous basement evokes the gloomy taverns of Franco’s era rather than the hip tapas counters of modern Spain. Nonetheless, the drinks list includes La Gitana sherry and Alhambra beer; they serve adequate tapas; Spanish and English are spoken; and it stays open till the post-clubbing hours, a welcome sanctuary in the back streets of youth-culture Shibuya.
Casa del Bueno, 13-16 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; 5784-0663; www.spainbar.net; open daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; English spoken.
Ikebukuro still can’t boast any taperia worthy of the name, but Bar Carlos, just down the line in Otsuka, more than takes up the slack. This cheerful little establishment is run by Carlos Solis, who we first met at the excellent Bar Cameron, in Kamiyacho. He spices up his menu and wine list (and sound system) with some intriguing influences from his native Peru. Definitely worth a detour.
Bar Carlos, Commander’s Bldg. 102, 2-23-3 Kita- Otsuka, Toshima-ku; (03) 3915-2703; r.gnavi.co.jp/p39140; nearest station Otsuka (JR Yamanote & Toden Arakawa lines); open 6 p.m.-4 a.m.; closed Wed. Some English spoken.