Every year when carnival time rolls around, it’s the Rio samba parade that hogs the limelight, along with Mardi Gras in New Orleans and similar festivities all around the Caribbean. But they still know how to celebrate the start of the Lenten season over there in Old Europe too. After all, that’s where the idea came from in the first place — and nowhere do they party with more intensity than in southern Spain.
This week the plazas and mazelike medieval streets of Cadiz will have been echoing to the revelry of musicians, acrobats and decorated floats from each of the city’s barrios, watched by throngs of onlookers dressed in masks and colorful costumes. Generally this is good-natured family fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also an excuse for widespread inebriation. Copious volumes of wine are knocked back over the holiday, much of it the incomparable local specialty vinos de Jerez, better known to the Anglophone world under the catchall term “sherry.”
Overlooked and underrated, even by many wine enthusiasts, this is one of Spain’s finest gifts to the civilized world. In Cadiz, Jerez de la Frontera and the surrounding area, sherry is not merely an occasional aperitif, it is the drink of choice throughout the meal at countless tapas bars and restaurants. A light, dry fino is the perfect accompaniment with the hors d’oeuvres; fragrant olorosos make an excellent counterpoint for heavier dishes; and at the end of the evening, nothing rounds off a meal better than a glass or two of smooth, nut-sweet Pedro Ximenez.
Happily, top-quality sherries are becoming more readily available in Tokyo these days, not just the ubiquitous Tio Pepe (though it’s always welcome with us) but many rare and premium varieties too. Even better, they’re being matched with good food in the best Andalusian tradition — exactly the way it’s done at Camaron.
This upscale tapas bar in Toranomon, close by the tunnel running underneath Atago Shrine, is as diminutive and friendly as its name (Spanish for “shrimp”). Owner Shinichiro Sugama used to work at Sherry Club, in Ginza, and although Camaron’s cellar is not nearly as extensive, he stocks some of the best examples of the genre. At the top of his list you will find La Gitana, a crisp, bone-dry manzanilla that’s almost as clear and smooth as ginjo sake. Produced in the small, estuarine town of San Lucar de Barrameda, its complex flavor carries hints of the salty breezes that gust off the nearby Atlantic. No doubt that is why it goes so well with seafood.
Sugama matches it with small saucers of ama-ebi shrimp. They are pink, plump and so perfectly blanched-boiled you won’t need the wedge of lemon that is served with them. This superb combination is the centerpiece of his menu. Order the Camaron Set (I) and he will bring you a saucer of shrimps, another of olives and a small glass of La Gitana, all for 700 yen. Serious sherry lovers, though, will prefer the Camaron Set (II), which for 2,500 yen includes shrimp and a wedge of tortilla (Spanish omelet), along with a half bottle of La Gitana.
It’s become a rule of thumb for us: You can gauge the measure of any Spanish restaurant by the caliber of the tortilla. Camaron’s is soft and flavorful, freshly cooked and still moist. To give the traditional recipe an interesting twist, different ingredients are incorporated in place of the standard boiled potato. On the night we visited, kabocha (pumpkin) was used, a variation that works really well. Plaudits here are due to chef Jun Takashima (also formerly of Sherry Club). He has only just taken over the reins here but he seems to be quite at home already. Throughout, he maintains a good balance between the forthright flavors of Iberia and the delicacy of presentation demanded by Tokyo customers.
He has plenty of other tapas snacks, both cold and hot, to help you finish that remaining manzanilla. Try the grilled manganji togarashi, long, fleshy, red pimientos that have a refreshingly bitter taste, but not spicy hot. And do not miss the bean salad, featuring soft, light green flageolet beans (brought in from Leon, to the northwest of Madrid) served with small, dark lentils on leaves of rocket and garnished with cherry tomatoes. This is given the simplest of olive oil dressings, but because the beans are cooked with thyme, it gives off the aroma of sun-drenched hillsides.
Takashima’s menu changes daily, and he is already preparing to mark the arrival of spring by adding angulas (baby eels) to his repertoire. If you’re lucky he will still be making his lacon — soft, juicy slices of salt pork boiled down with a paste of anchovy and tarragon. Served on crisp baguette bread, it is only a mouthful-and-a-half, but it is excellent. So is his morcilla, which is stuffed with plenty of rice to balance that dark, rich, cloying, blood-sausage flavor. Heated in the oven to crisp the skin, then cut into bit-size morsels, it is served on square dark brown Spanish earthenware platters.
By this time you will be needing wine of greater body. Sugama is likely to direct you to an amontillado or an oloroso, particularly the Obispo Gascon, one of the premium wines from the Barbadillo sherry house. At 880 yen for a small glass, it is not cheap but its color of old gold and its toasty, nutty aroma are likely to linger in the memory. We instead picked out a very acceptable Rioja gran reserva (Languinilla 1987) from Sugama’s list of regular wines, which is compact, reasonably priced (and entirely Spanish, of course).
One of the most substantial dishes on the menu is the kama-yaki tuna, which is roasted with herbs (rosemary, sage too, but predominantly thyme again). There is plenty of satisfying dark meat to be excavated from inside that hefty, sickle-shaped bone, which is well served by the dipping sauce of shoyu infused with chili peppers.
Should further sustenance be required, Takashima can produce a highly commendable paella. On the night we were there, it featured chunks of ham and mushroom and was sprinkled with crunchy pieces of roast almond and walnuts. This is only worth contemplating if there are three or four people in your party, or if you make it the prime focus of your meal. Because it is made using authentic paella rice from Spain, it costs 4,000 yen per pan — but it is so delicious and oil-rich you will find yourself nibbling away at the last crispy grains around the edge of the pan until it’s all gone.
Desserts are simple, maybe nothing more than creamy rice pudding. But to end your meal in style, you should consider a glass of dark, sweet Eva cream sherry, or perhaps the sumptuous Noe, a deluxe Pedro Ximenez as rich and dark as treacle. Or order a snifter of Carlos I brandy with your cafe solo, then sit back and light up a cigarillo.
Many of the customers here are regulars, who pull up their chairs to the counter in front of the open kitchen and spend the evening nibbling and sipping as if it were their local izakaya. In this respect, Camaron is little different from a tapas bar anywhere in Spain. There is one area, though, where it signally fails to maintain its own high standards: Sugama does not keep a stock of real jamon serrano. The disappointment is felt all the more keenly after seeing the plastic model of a ham that is displayed prominently in the window.
Fine sherry without good ham is like having champagne without the oysters, foie gras without Sauternes, or Stilton without port. If Sugama were to rectify this, then Camaron would be an essential port of call, worth crossing the city for.