Restaurant ・ Spanish
Far removed from the salubriousness of the Central location for his other restaurants, The Salted Pig and Shore, chef Jason Black’s latest project is set in the lacklustre building that is the Empire Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui East (home to raucous live music bar Sticky Fingers and others of its ilk). At least it benefits from the wide sidewalk on which alfresco tables are set, and we imagine on less hot and humid days this would be a wonderful place to sit and nibble on tapas while watching the world go by. Inside, rustic woods and Spanish tiles are the typical visual cues to signal what kind of a venue this is; the legs of jamon and aged photographs of life in Spain (the latter artefacts of which belong to one of the owners here) further enhance it. It’s not the most original or impressive of layouts, but do not be fooled by the simplicity of the design.
A menu (by chef Sammy Flores) crisscrossing the Spanish canon gives us a good overview of the favoured classics (tortilla, rich and nutty Iberico ham, croquetas, paella) but also gives more interesting choices for those stepping out from beyond the boundaries. Instead of the typical ham croquetas, we opt for the pumpkin and nut version, which come piping hot and properly crisp on the outside, and oozing within with the sweet notes of squash and slightly caramelised hints of toasty nuts. It’s a fine start, and an excellent match with the zingy salad of white marinated anchovies with roasted pepper, crisp romaine and chicory, red onion and cherry tomatoes. The fish are ultra fresh and tart, whetting our appetites for the meal ahead. There’s a slight dip with the dish of chicken livers on toasted slices of bread, which is not to our taste – the livers are dry and grey, and unevenly chopped to create a dish that is rustic in all the wrong ways. The meal picks up though, with an impressive main course of chargrilled beef tenderloin with Cabrales cheese (a tangy, creamy blue cheese from the village of the same name in northern Spain); the cheese is crumbled and scattered around the wooden board on which the steak is served, and more is melted into a petit pot to create a rich fondue-like dipping sauce for the beef. As this cut of meat tends to sacrifice flavour for tenderness, the strong taste of the cheese is a welcome one, and is especially good with the smoky char from the grill. We end with that old favourite, churros with a dark chocolate dipping sauce, which are light and crisp but too sugared for our palate.
A sizeable wine list concentrating, naturally, on Spanish bottles and New World labels will keep elbow-benders busy. We especially warmed up to the fresh ginger mojito (a special recipe of restaurant manager and partner Jose Luis Benjumeda); while not particularly Spanish, we enjoyed its punchy spiciness and refreshing finish.
The staff here have an earnesty about them, and everyone from the chef to the waiters seem to want you to have a good time. There’s an enthusiasm about the food and drink that we often don’t see enough of.
A filling meal for two with two cocktails or a glass of wine each will cost around HK$400 a head. The food here is well proportioned, reasonably priced, and has a quality that will pleasantly surprise.