Espana’s white-anchovy toast is the $5 dish of my dreams. I love anchovies, sardines and herring. And I have long lamented Vancouver’s seeming lack of affection for such lowly, lusciously fatty baitfish.
Could the tide be turning?
At this small, Spanish tapas joint boldly spicing up the West End, the anchovies aren’t mashed into a paste or buried under vegetables. They’re treated like ocean royalty. Long, sleek and silvery, they’re grandly coiled high atop two slices of whole-wheat toast (about 8 to 10 fish apiece) in a slithery Medusa-like crown that dribbles down the chin when you stretch your jaw to take a bite.
These delicately flavoured boquerones, cured in vinegar and packed in olive oil, may be a staple in Spain. Yet I’ve never seen them, not there and certainly not here, served with such gusto. At first, I couldn’t help but wonder if the chef had piled the fish on extra thick to a) impress me or b) gross me out.
I’m sure the dish has made some people flinch. But they weren’t sitting anywhere near me. Looking around, I watched several other diners eagerly devour equally huge portions of the imported fish, gently revived with sherry vinegar and lemon zest.
“Everyone’s going nuts for it,” executive chef Neil Taylor later explained by phone, admitting that he never imagined anchovies would be so popular.
Although pleasantly surprised, I’m not shocked. The fans Mr. Taylor developed at Cibo Trattoria have come to crave the unexpected in his cooking. A master at transforming bottom-rung ingredients into mouthwatering dish-es, he helped Cibo win the enRoute magazine award for best new restaurant in all of Canada in 2009 with a menu showcasing tripe, turnip, lamb’s tongue and kidney.
Mr. Taylor was recruited to Cibo from River Café, the legendary London restaurant that put regional Italian cuisine on the British map. Lucky for us, he’s decided to stay in Vancouver. Exchanging pasta for paella, he opened Espana two months ago with co-owner Edward Perrow, a former Cibo general manager and long-time operations manager for Bin 941 and (the recently shuttered) Bin 942.
For two London lads, they’ve had no problem nailing a hot Spanish vibe. The 42-seat room has been packed since day one. I know this for a fact because I live in the neighbourhood and spent weeks peering through steamy front windows. I kept trying to go in, but couldn’t even step through the doorway. Night after night, the tiny front foyer was crushed as tight as an Ibiza dance floor with would-be diners patiently waiting for a table.
Espana doesn’t take reservations and even the early dinner hour tends to fill up fast with what has already become a regular crowd of elderly West End ladies and their walkers. If you don’t go midweek or late at night, be prepared to get in line.
Once inside, the restaurant is actually quite comfortable. Long and narrow, with bar seating along one wall and a pocket kitchen in the back, it reminds me of a grown-up Bin. The clean décor – simple white walls, dark-stained wooden beams, a pencil-drawn mural (of Manuel, the infamously befuddled Barcelonian waiter from BBC’s Fawlty Towers) – is less eclectic. The modern flamenco music is, mercifully, played much more quietly. And there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs.
Still, I can’t help thinking that after the initial curiosity dies down, Espana could rival Bin 941 as the city’s favourite first-date restaurant. It’s a good place to test a personality.
Will he play it safe and order crispy squid or dine on the wild side with sautéed duck livers and quail’s egg? Does crispy goat cheese dressed with orange-blossom honey sound too girly? Let’s see how she handles house-made morcilla, a delectably moist blood-pudding custard made with equal parts pork blood, cooked rice, diced pork fat and raw onions.
As fragrant as Christmas, smothered in sautéed chanterelles and topped with a fried egg, the morcilla was another unexpected hit that moved from the special board to the regular menu by popular demand.
Mr. Perrow has compiled an intriguing all-Spanish wine list that will introduce many to new varietals such as bobal and macabeo. His sherry flights (dry and sweet) are terrific.
Many of the dishes – crispy chick peas tossed with paprika and mint, fried potatoes simmered in spicy tomato sauce – are fairly standard. Cheeses and cured meats take up nearly half the menu.
But Mr. Taylor has thrown in a few unusual twists. Cumin-spiced lamb with harissa and hummus may not taste authentically Spanish to some. It’s not meant to be. This is the chef’s broad interpretation of Spanish cuisine, one that encompasses all its ancient Moorish history from the Middle East to North Africa.
Although occasionally bogged down with too much flabby aioli (the salt-cod croquettes), Mr. Taylor’s Spanish cooking exudes the same deft balance of sweetness and acidity (the wilted Catalan spinach tossed with pine nuts and raisins yet reined in by lemon) as his Italian cuisine.
The food here is all very good. A few dishes – the morcilla, chunky chorizo-chestnut soup and those arresting anchovies – are outstanding.