Everyone who knows me knows how much I love Spain. The people, the cities, the beaches, and of course the food & drink. I have a particular love affair with Barcelona, as I've visited twice. I'm such a superfan that it's almost a bit embarrassing. My most recent trip this gem of Catalunya was not only to get married (a not-so-legally binding fun fest, followed by a ceremony back home in Toronto a month or so later), but to revel in the culture that I love so much. If you've been to Barcelona you know that the beer of choice there from the pintxos bars of El Poble Sec to the beaches of Poblenou and beyond is Estrella Damm. This Mediterranean Lager, with it's extra-refreshing blend of barley malt, yeast and hops has been synonymous with my favourite city since 1876. Trust me, it is just the thing to pair with hotter weather, and just so hot right now Spanish cuisine. Which, like, has been that au courant in Spain pretty much forever, because to them it's just food. Know what I mean? Trust me, they have this whole food and beverage thing sorted out. You'll notice that tapas, pintxos and small-plate style eating in general has been popping up quite a bit in Toronto in the past few years, so apparently my hometown's culinary community agrees with me on this one. Really, it's not just about Spanish food per se, but an overall social style of sharing and dining that has been spreading like wildfire, and for good reason.
So......when I found out that Estrella Damm had partnered up with some of this fair city's best restos to bring a Tapas crawl of sorts to Toronto, my response was "Where do I sign UP?". From August 14th - 23. Here's how it works: 20 participating restaurants in Toronto will offer three tapas + one Estrella Damm for the awesome price of $20. That's right, you heard me. Head over to Post City's site here to see all the restaurants and menu items involved. If you're like me, you'll want to visit as many of them as you can. To document your journey, you'll get a passport at the first restaurant you visit, and can collect stamps when you order the tapas journey menu at each participating venue. Share your stamped passport on twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #TapasJourney, and you can win a trip for 2 to Miami to attend the Estrella Damm Gastronomy Congress and see Ferran Adrià, the world’s most awarded chef. Ummmm....talk about win-win-WIN. I was lucky enough to get a little preview of what El Catrin, East Thirty-Six, and Barsa Taberna have on offer, so I rounded up my friends Karen Kwan, Cory Lee, and Meghan Young for our own Tapas Journey. Needless to say, it was an absolute blast. Here's how it all went down:
The first stop on our Toronto Tapas Journey was El Catrin. This Distillery destination is known for its upbeat vibe, incredible patio, and authentic Mexican food by Chef Olivier Le Calvez. Drawing from not only his native Mexico City but all over his home country, Chef Le Calvez brings the flavourful intricacies of Mexico's many regional cuisines together for Torontonians to enjoy. This New World take on tapas definitely did not disappoint. We started with the Ensalada Destileria featuring shrimp, mango, green papaya, frisee and tajin sour vinaigrette, which was bright and refreshing. Then the Sopesito De Huitlacoche - a small corn tortilla topped with mushrooms, charred corn, cojita cheese and huitlacoche, which is essentially the truffle (yep, fungus....delicious fungus) of Mexican cuisine. Last but not least, my favourite.....the Carrillera En Mole Negro: 24 hour braised beef cheek, black oaxacan mole negro, plantain puree, chayote and pickled red onion. Chef Le Calvez puts a lot of work into this mole negro....days in fact, and the result is pretty amazing. It's a deep, dark and deliciously complex sauce smothering fall-apart-tender beef that left me craving seconds.....or thirds.
Even though Estrella Damm is the beer of Catalunya, it goes excellently well with this selection of flavourful Mexican dishes. A lager like this loves to pair up with spicier food. I realized with two more stops ahead of us, and so much delicious food, it was not going to be so easy to pace ourselves.
Our next stop, East Thirty-Six is exactly the kind of spot that you want to meet up with friends (or a date, for that matter) when you want a more refined drinks and dining experience. That's not to say it's stuffy in any way. The service is warm and welcoming, yet as polished as the space's interior design. Chef Brent Maxwell's take on tapas feels like a very curated experience. There is as much attention to detail in creating a pleasing-looking plate that also pleases the palate. Cordoniz a la Plancha y Mojo Verde - grilled quail and fried olives in a zippy cilantro, garlic and sherry sauce is really lux and fresh. I loved the fried olives so much I'll admit I swiped a few from someone else's plate. No shame there. Mejillones en Escabeche was a great take on a traditional seafood treatment, with mussels marinated in acid then poached, paired with preserved orange and pickled padron peppers. My favourite of this stop might just have to be the Ajo Blanco, which was a white gazpacho featuring pickled grapes and marcona almonds. Everything about this chilled soup was addictive - flavour, texture, presentation. All amazing.
Estrella Damm is such a no-brainer when pairing with with classics like a good seafood escabeche or a grilled quail. Not to mention how it played off the fried olives to make them extra addictive. Seriously....look at that picture up there. ALL OF THAT FOR $20. Bananas, right?
Ok, so, to be honest, by the time we are on our way to the last stop on our Tapas Journey, we are definitely getting full. Yes these are "small plates" that we are test driving. But the Toronto restaurants that have teamed up with Estrella Damm are downright generous with what they are offering during Tapas Journey week. Not to mention that everything has been so, so delicious. But Barsa Taberna is our final destination for the evening, so I make sure that the crew saves room for what will be a very special food experience. That's because I've found out that Chef Chris McDonald has recently joined this relatively new spot by St. Lawrence Market as consulting chef. I had the pleasure of first meeting Chris years ago when he was Chef and Owner of Cava and Xococava, where I was introduced to the awesomeness of Jamon Iberico, paella, and Spanish cuisine before I even set foot in Barcelona. To be honest, he is very much responsible for bringing the canon of classical Spanish cooking to Toronto, years before it was the super hot thang that it is now. So if you don't know, now you know.
The freshness of the first tapa can't be understated. Barsa's Camarones (prawns) En Escabeche featured the sweetest BC shrimp with sea asparagus, avruga caviar and Cava solids was a light, bright and delicious way to kick things off. The Pulpo a la Gallega, or Galacian ocotopus in a charred corn husk with pimenton butter was beautiful to look at and to taste, and the octopus was perfectly done. Last but not least, Tartara de Res Con Foie, or Beef Tartare with salt-cured foie gras. How's that for a ego-boost for your taste buds? I can't get over the fact that ingredients like these are just a part of a three tapas and one beer combo for just twenty dollars. After a few bites of these evolved Spanish classics with sips of Estrella Damm, I'm in my happy place. You could say it's the beer that plays well with others, especially when "others" are tapas classics like these.
That was the end of our very cosmopolitan crawl for the evening, but only a fraction of the restaurants involved in the Tapas Journey from August 14-23. Don't forget to get your passport stamped as you travel to each participating restaurant, then post a picture of it to Instagram for a chance to win 1 of 3 trips to Miami to attend the Estrella Damm Gastronomy Congress and see Ferran Adria. Which, basically, is the coolest thing ever. Get those details below or from Post City here.
Good luck.....and in the true spirit of Barcelona, Bon Profit!