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Aug 12, 2012, 10:45 IST | Moeena Halim

Four months ago Vinoteca By Sula popped open a jar of Spanish olives, and it was a hit. Since then two other Spanish restaurants, Arola and Poco Loco, have cropped up in the city. Moeena Halim smells a paprika-flavoured trend in the air

We thought of the idea way before Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,” snorts Sonal Bhandarkar, indignantly.

We’re sitting at a table in Poco Loco, the spanking new Spanish restaurant Bhandarkar and her husband Saurabh Shroff started up in Bandra, when conversation veers to the popular Hindi film.

Saurabh Shroff and Sonal Bhandarkar, the couple who launched Poco Loco in Bandra. Pic/Anita Anand

The couple had been talking about setting up a Spanish restaurant for a long time, she reveals. “Then I got lucky and she married me last October,” Shroff adds. The two decided to take another plunge, so to speak, and set up the restaurant together.

In May, they visited Madrid for eight days to learn more about Spanish culture and the cuisine. “The city was so alive — there was live music playing everywhere, and each street was dotted with tapas bars, serving small portions of food along with wine. We wanted to replicate that here,” says Bhandarkar, who was already familiar with the hospitality industry.

Bring on the booze
Poco Loco, which means ‘a little crazy’ in Spanish, is the third Spanish joint to pop up in the city within the past four months. This Bandra restaurant is barely two weekends old, but already has a loyal group of regulars. Their bar, right in the middle of the restaurant, is reminiscent of Spanish restaurants with their lively bars. “The other night we had a reservation for our bar. They were a group of 11 friends who sat there until we closed,” says Bhandarkar.

Alcohol is a huge part of Spanish restaurant culture and both Poco Loco and Worli’s Vinoteca by Sula are making the most of it. Vinoteca, which opened its doors in April, was the first joint in the city to exclusively serve Spanish cuisine. Launched by Sula Vineyards’ Rajeev Samant, the concept was to couple their large selection of wines with Spain’s quintessential finger food — tapas. “We don’t call ourselves a restaurant,” says Chaitanya Rathi, Marketing, Sula Group, “Vinoteca is a wine and tapas bar.”

“The per capita wine consumption in Spain is the highest in the world,” Rathi continues. So when Sula wanted to start up a wine bar, pairing it with Spanish cuisine seemed a natural choice. Besides, back then no one else seemed to have thought of setting up a dedicated Spanish restaurant and the novelty of the idea made it that much more appealing.

Just like in the case of Poco Loco, Rathi’s visit to Spain served as inspiration to replicate their restaurant culture in Mumbai. “I went to Barcelona two years ago and found that wine bars there were not high-end; they catered to everyone. This was new to Mumbai and was something we wanted to introduce here,” says Rathi.

Vinoteca, therefore, claims to encourage people to socialise over a glass of wine and some finger food. “We have comfortable bar stools where people can socialise, have some wine and 2-3 servings of tapas. You won’t come to Vinoteca to have a formal lunch or dinner,” explains Rathi.

Doing it right
For Vinoteca’s Executive Chef, Silvia Grimaldo, the biggest challenge has been to source fresh and authentic ingredients. “We still import a number of ingredients such as Serrano ham, Pata Negra, Spanish capers, sweet and spicy paprika and Manchego cheese from Spain,” she reveals.

Grimaldo, who was born and is based in Ibiza, has based the menu on Central Spanish cuisine. However, the restaurant also serves pintxos (pronounced pinchos; they are single servings of tapas), which are typical to the Basque region in northern Spain.

“Our tapas and pintxos are prepared using fresh seasonal produce as well as organic ingredients sourced from Sula’s own estate gardens in Nashik. The local catch is handpicked by our in-house chef on a daily basis. Additionally the meats, cheeses, olive oil and a few other key seasonings that we use are imported from Spain, Norway, Greece and Belgium,” says Grimaldo.

Arola at Juhu’s JW Marriott, is yet another Spanish outing, that was launched in June. The management’s decision to offer Spanish food to patrons stemmed from the fact that they already owned an Italian restaurant, and felt that Mumbai’s next favourite European cuisine could well be Spanish. With Michelin star chef Sergio Arola at the helm, the restaurant is keen to give patrons an authentic experience, even as they use a tandoori oven.

Spain is in
Marut Sikka, food critic and chef, says there are three reasons why Spanish cuisine is becoming popular with Indians. “For starters, tapas is a very nibbly, snacky sort of food, and Indians love that —we enjoying eating chaat, or vada pav and keep snacking all day long. Secondly, Indians love having a variety of flavours in their meal and the Spanish way of eating is the same. Thirdly, Spanish cuisine is easy to adapt to our taste. There are a thousand ways to create tapas, and paella can easily be compared to biryani,” he says.

With a desi twist
Chef Salim Mandal, Executive Chef at Poco Loco, admits that the food he dishes out isn’t authentically Spanish. As Bhandarkar puts it, “If we didn’t spice up the food more, it might be too bland for the Indian palate.”

Mandal reveals, “When I was asked to come up with a trial menu for this restaurant, I studied a lot of recipes. Paella, I found, required a saffron broth. I had no idea how to make that. But a few trials later, I got it right.” The chef was widely known for his thin crust pizza while he worked at the InterContinental Marine Drive. “Maybe I’ll become known for my paella now,” he says, ecstatic about the response his food has received in the past two weeks.

Particularly difficult was getting the vegetarian paella right. “Without the seafood and other meat, paella could very easily seem like just another pulao. The only difference would be that we use Arborio rice instead of Basmati,” says Mandal. But with his use of extra virgin olive oil, different bell peppers, asparagus, carrots and long beans, he might just have nailed it. “The only complaint we get from vegetarians now is that there isn’t enough of it on the menu,” reveals Bhandarkar.

Why the wait?
While Italian, Indian, and Chinese food is widely available across the globe, Spain has kept its food largely within its country walls. Mumbai has certainly been a stranger to Spanish cuisine.

“Restaurateurs in the city lack imagination,” says columnist Ronjona Banerji, who used to review restaurants for a city newspaper. “But as consumers we’re to blame too, because I feel that our palates haven’t matured,’ she adds, “We still have an unhealthy obsession with Italian food.”

Kalyan Karmakar, a food blogger, is more optimistic. “In the last couple of years, people have started exploring different cuisines. People are travelling more and are more aware of different types of food. Spanish food is definitely a new trend. Let’s see if it will sustain itself,” he says.

Grimaldo blames her native government, “Spain has only recently begun to promote its cuisine in the international market.” Authentic ingredients such as cheese and cured meats are only now being exported out of the country. “So both from a government promotion, cost, and availability perspective this cuisine is surely set to soar great heights,” she concludes.

Paella in a packet?
“Chinese food is now served on the streets the way chaat is, Italian food is available in packets, you never know how Spanish food will be served a few years down the line,” jokes Sikka.

“The basic ingredients, tastes and textures have a strong similarity to the Indian cuisines and is favourable to the Indian palate, therefore leading to a significant increase in the cuisine’s popularity in the near future,” concludes Grimaldo.

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