They say that the best food can be found in a grandmother’s kitchen. In my case, it’s in an abuela’s kitchen.
My grandmother’s family hails from Cantabria, a region of Northern Spain that’s blessed with verdant upland meadows and bountiful valleys where the best meat and produce can be found, as well as a coast from which some of the best seafood in the Atlantic can be caught. Spanish food is a key element in my family’s way of life, and my grandmother reigns as the queen of the kitchen. Her callos a la madrileña (Madrid style tripe), fabada (a pork, sausage, and bean stew), paella mixta — all the stuff of legend.
Since this cuisine is so easily accessible at home, visiting Spanish restaurants here in Manila was never a priority for us. Why buy the food you get at home? MBites, however, got wind of this sentiment and decided to take me on a three-restaurant food trip in a single afternoon.
Our food trip began in Tomatito, the “sexy” tapas bar in Bonifacio Global City. The inside décor was loud and energetic with its red walls, hanging paelleras, and unapologetic nods to 1980s Spanish pop culture. The open kitchen set-up let us to watch as the staff prepared our food, which in turn transformed my initial hesitations about eating here into curiosity.
We started with an original dish called Salmon TNT, the restaurant’s ode to Ferran Adria’s elBulli, a Catalonian restaurant that is considered by many as a pioneer in modern cuisine. This dish featured a caviar-topped piece of smoked salmon balanced on top of a cream-filled pastry round and drizzled with truffle honey. Though made with ingredients that wouldn’t be considered traditional in a Spanish kitchen, the Salmon TNT is a clever play on the montadito, tapa-sized open sandwiches. The flavors were, as the name would suggest, explosive but controlled, with the earthy sweetness of the truffle honey cleverly playing off the coolness of the cream and the smokiness of the salmon.
The next item on our list was the boquerones, or marinated white anchovies, and gazpacho andaluz, a cold, vegetable and tomato-based soup that is iconic to Southern Spain. I was especially excited for this course, as it featured two of my favorite things to eat. The boquerones, which were served on top of olive oil potato chips, tasted wonderfully bright and tangy, while the soup was cool and refreshing, with just the right amounts of sweetness from the tomatoes and acidity from the vinegar. The summery flavors instantly transported me back to the al fresco lunches (where these two would be the stars of the show) my family would have on a hot day in Spain.
Now on a small high from the last dish, we continue to the next course — pulpo a la tomatito, four skewers with octopus, half a baby potato, jamón, smoked paprika, and alioli served on a ceramic plate shaped like a tentacle. With its components laid out bare, this dish exemplifies a key characteristic of Mediterranean cooking: a dependence on the quality and freshness of each component to achieve maximum flavor. The octopus and the potato were well cooked, and the jamón gave the skewer a much welcomed cured, salty flavor. The alioli at the bottom of the potato, however, lacked the punchy flavors of garlic and salt.
Our final order in Tomatito was the Secreto ibérico con romesco y esparrgos, a slow-cooked pork dish served with potatoes, asparagus, parsley pesto and romesco, a roasted red pepper and almond sauce. The restaurant puts a Mexican twist on the sauce by adding ancho chile. This gave it a wonderfully sweet-smoky heat and depth of flavor. It was, surprised as I am to admit it, tastier than my grandmother’s romesco sauce (don’t tell her about this).
In the end, it was easy to see that Tomatito was all about being fun and modern with food while still showing respect for the flavors of classic Spanish cuisine. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed the restaurant. For someone who had never tried the Spanish restaurant scene in Manila, it was a good place to start.