Taking on the Tapas Trend

It’s not easy being a pioneer.

When the Fernandez sisters opened Embrujo Flamenco (97 Danforth Avenue) in 2002, few knew what tapas were. The concept of snack-like items, served on small plates and meant for sharing while enjoying a quick after-work drink was, while not unknown in Toronto, still vaguely foreign when the items were all Spanish in origin.

The sisters (Jais running the front of house, Mali as the executive chef and Eren running the business and marketing) had a plan to bring authentic Spanish cuisine to the city. They created a restaurant that offered tapas and flamenco dancing performances for a taste of Spain that Toronto had not seen.

From the start, an explanation of tapas was required so customers not familiar with Spanish cuisine would understand the process.

“It was hard because there were not many people who knew about tapas,” says Jais. “The trend obviously was there but people didn’t know about small plates or anything like that. Even now we still ask [our guests] if they know what tapas are, but now the majority of people say yes. At the time is was more like 70/30. 70 percent didn’t know what it was. And the 30 percent had probably been to Spain.”

As the small plates trend progressed and expanded to every type of cuisine, Jais says it has had both positive and negative influences on the restaurant.

“Over time there were other tapas bars opening, but they were oriented to the trend more than the Spanish cuisine. People didn’t understand that tapas comes from Spain, that there is more to tapas than just small plates. There was a point when people thought it was that.”

Many restaurants jumped on the “tapas” trend, using the concept of “small plates” to charge more money for less food, and potentially distorting what the traditions were all about.

“It was really frustrating,” Jais explains. “Especially just from a Spanish background, to have your cuisine be misrepresented. It was a big trend coming up, like it was a way of eating, and the word that people got was tapas. It was very misleading and we had people coming here saying, ‘well I think I like more Italian tapas or Indian tapas’ and things like that. But then they tried our food and loved it.”

“So that was a good thing. I realized it was good because a lot of people were learning about tapas and they were coming to the restaurant and they were becoming educated. We didn’t lecture anybody but we tried to make people understand that tapas comes from Spain, and must use Spanish ingredients to say they are tapas.”

Riding out the trend worked to the sisters’ benefit as people caught on to what tapas was really about, and as many other restaurants featuring small plates closed down, Embrujo Flamenco grew in popularity as word of authentic Spanish tapas spread, and it became the place to go for this style of cuisine.

One aspect of the authentic tapas tradition that Embrujo Flamenco didn’t have was the actual tapas bar. In fact, the elegant restaurant has no bar at all, with drinks being made in the back. Jais says that many of her customers asked for something more casual, a space where they could stop by for drinks and a few small bites without having to order a full dinner, or a place to talk and hang out that was quieter than the main restaurant with the flamenco performances that run from Wednesday to Sunday nights.

Earlier this year they opened Cafe Madrid, a smaller space downstairs with some tables but also with a bar serving drinks and tapas. Open on Friday and Saturday nights, the space also works well for private parties and events.

“It’s a different space for people who only want to have drinks,” she tells me. “It used to be, years ago, in the south of Spain they’d only stand up, and be at the bar, no sitting down. We didn’t even have chairs at a lot of the bars. You have to stand up and eat and drink and leave. That was the way it was back then. Now, obviously, there are some tables, but I decided we were missing the bar.”

A tour of the cozy room reveals jars of manchego cheese and a leg of Iberico ham on a slicer, ready to be paired with a glass of the spicy house sangria or perhaps some wine or sherry.

And while the downstairs menu is pared down and more in keeping with what you’d find in Spain, all of the food is made with a dedication to keeping things authentic and traditional. Chef Mali exercises her creativity throughout the menu, putting personalized twists on things while still ensuring that the food is traditionally Spanish.

Some dishes are startling and seem like the won’t work at all, such as the sauteed shrimps and portobello in anise sauce, but the balance of flavours is so perfect and the play of sweetness so concise that it’s one of our favourites. Bacalao (codfish) in a tomato-based sauce with almonds and capers is also a winner and very traditional, and Jais tells us that they have plans to start selling the sauce via their website in the autumn, along with other foods produced in the restaurant or imported from Spain.

“A lot of people ask for the recipes, so we can sell it online, so you only do your bacalao and put it on top”, she explains. They’ll also be importing Spanish hams and other products such as the Spanish olive oil that they use in the restaurant. Jais is also planning gift baskets of Spanish products for Christmas.

Of course, you can’t go to an authentic Spanish restaurant and not try the paella, which is one of the things the sisters are the most proud of.

The regular menu offers 3 types of paella, all made with traditional Spanish short rice, real saffron and the freshest fish. Jais points out that all of the shrimp Mali uses are organic which are hard to find, but which the chef prefers because of the great flavour.

They expand their paella repertoire during their popular paella festival – the next one takes place at the beginning of November and runs for two weeks – where they’ll offer 5 or 6 types, including a vegetarian version, and a very traditional version from Valencia with rabbit and escargots.

And lest vegetarians be put off by all of the seafood and meat, Embrujo Flamenco offers a very diverse selection of vegetarian tapas dishes. Jais is proud of this as well, pointing out that their vegetarian customers all eat very well and that the selection is a draw in and of itself.

One of the things that many people claim to love about Toronto is our multiculturalism, and especially the diversity of restaurants and cuisines that we have available to us. Yet when the small plates trend hit it focused on almost every style of cuisine except Spanish. Thankfully, Embrujo Flamenco has been able to carve their own niche and flourish as people learn more about Spanish food and seek out authentic dishes and preparations. For the Fernandez sisters, serving traditional Spanish food also meant needing to have the patience to wait out the trendiness of the small plates movement so they could show Toronto what tapas is really all about.