Enough to make Spanish eyes smile


In case you hadn’t noticed, Spanish food is big right now — or at least that’s what the vernacular magazines would have us believe. This, of course, is not the first time it’s been touted as the next big thing. But somehow a critical mass of popularity was never achieved, and Spain’s culinary profile here has never matched that of Italy or France.

Ahead of the Barcelona Olympics, tapas and paella were seen as the natural successors to antipasti and pasta. This time round, the buzzwords are Bulli, the Michelin-starred “nueva-cozina” in Catalonia run by Fernando Adria; and pinchos, those tasty bar snacks that are (along with jai alai) the Basque country’s best-known contribution to the international culinary community.

Much of the recent media attention has been centered on some new, flashy establishments in the center of town. For us, though, a far better gauge of the culinary climate is the steady growth in popularity of the smaller places. Here are three newcomers worth knowing about.

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In its first incarnation, San Isidro was a cheerful, second-floor taberna tucked away close to the rugby fields behind Gaienmae. It won a loyal following of fans, thanks to its unpretentious demeanor and simple, home-style cooking, overseen by food writer and ardent Iberiophile Chihiro Otsuki.

Now, after a hiatus of more than two years, Otsuki-san has set up shop again, under the same name but this time tucked away on a side street near Tokyu Honten in Shibuya. The look has been updated — simple, modern furnishings downstairs; a small counter where you can sip on sherry; and a cozy mezzanine level in whitewashed hacienda style — but the menu covers much the same territory as before.

Otsuki-san’s strongest point is her range of tapas. We enjoyed the escabeche, small, whole fish (ko-aji) batter-fried and marinated; the vieras (scallops) in Galician style, prepared with finely diced tomato and served on the half shell; and, most especially, the chipirones a la plancha, baby squid cooked whole in oil and served with an aioli dip.

She has a good tortilla recipe, chock full of fine-sliced potato, although the wedge we were served didn’t taste same-day fresh. And the fritters of baby iwashi (sardines) were excellent. But our seafood paella was not a success. Undercooked and salty, it tasted more like a failed risotto.

So think of San Isidro not so much as a full evening’s stop, more a way station for a few tapas some La Gitana manzanilla, one of our favorites (and served from the half bottle, so it’s fresh). It would also make a great wine bar, if the selection were not so limited.

San Isidro, 34-6 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3780-3146. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 6-11:45 p.m.; closed Sunday. Japanese/Spanish/English menu. Most credit cards accepted.

Walk past the front entrance of Tokyu Department Store, take the second narrow side street on the right (by a coffee shop). San Isidro is on the right after 20 meters.

The basement of a life insurance building in Uchisaiwaicho is hardly the most obvious location for cutting-edge dining. But this is where you’ll find Pintxos Bepo, the very first place in the city devoted entirely to the timeless pleasures of sipping on wine and snacking on pinchos (pintxos being the Basque version of the word).

It’s a small place, little bigger than a typical shokudo lunch counter, but it packs plenty of style. The interior is bright and contemporary; dance music fills the airwaves; and the staff is young and hip. But it’s the menu that draws the evening crowds.

Bepo offers a choice of 49 different pinchos, all detailed with photographs and descriptions in English and Japanese. Some follow the traditional style — such as slices of ham or cheese on a thin slice of baguette. But most of the rest are new-wave innovations unheard of in the neighborhood bars of San Sebastian’s old town.

What would old-timers make of serrano ham, tomato and lettuce and a crisp, deep-fried breadstick rolled up in rice paper like a Vietnamese spring roll (No. 8 on the menu)? Or pez burger (No. 41), a miniature bun topped with a fried fish patty? The callos (No. 35) is a light pastry topped with warm, simmered beef tripe. And the spicy chicken (No. 39) features morsels of breast meat in a curry-flavored batter, served on bread with mayonnaise. These are pinchos as viewed through the same prism as the Rainbow Roll school of sushi. It’s not even surprising that they’ve dreamed up three dessert pinchos (featuring ice cream).

But this is not a place intended for serious dining — more for getting loosened up for the rest of the evening. They have a reasonable selection of wine — though unfortunately no txakoli, the young potent wine quaffed throughout the Basque region. Even so, Pintxos Bepo is still a remarkable find in such unlikely surroundings.

Pintxos Bepo, Fukoku Seimei Bldg. B2, 2-2-2 Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3597-0312. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; closed Saturday, Sunday and holidays. English/Spanish/Japanese menu. Most credit cards accepted.

From Uchisaiwaicho Station (Mita Line), leave by Exit A6, which leads straight into the B2 level of the Fukoku Seimei Building.

But of all the new Spanish places that have arrived in the past few months, our favorite is Spain Bar, just off the main drag in Roppongi. Open since December, it’s an offshoot of Tsukishima’s long-established Spain Club — which should be sufficient recommendation for most people.

With tilework halfway up the wall, dark-wood doors, ersatz beams across the ceiling and metal wall decorations, the decor is Iberian in inspiration, but given a chic, up-to-date spin. You perch on high chairs, either at the counter or at tables with heavy, wrought-iron bases.

Here is a place where you can settle in for the duration. Service is assured, the food is good and so is the wine list, which is found in a reassuringly thick, leather-bound tome. Most bottles are in the 3,000 yen to 5,000 yen range. But if you want to splash out, there are some top-notch Rioja (Todonia) and Ribera del Duero (Protos). They also keep half a dozen bottles open to be served by the glass, including a fine, acidic Albarino and some very drinkable reds.

We nibbled on a few pinchos, olives and some excellent chorizo. The tortilla was warm and moist; the gamba al ajillo (shrimps cooked in oil with slices of garlic) were fresh and sweet; and the pulpo gallego (octopus Galician style) was tender and not too strongly seasoned with paprika. And if the paella was oversalted, at least it was fully cooked. We left well satisfied.

Obviously we are not the only ones to have registered our approval at the way Spain Bar does things. At the end of this month, they are opening a new branch in Ginza, which will be open daily from 7 a.m. Whether they are catering to the breakfast crowd or partygoers on the way home, it doesn’t really matter.