“There is something between Icelandic people and Spanish people,” says Esteban Morales, as he sets down a platter of tortilla pintxos in front of us. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but Spanish people feel well and comfortable in Iceland, and Icelandic people feel good in Spain. Maybe it’s the Gulf Stream that we share, I don’t know,” he laughs.
True or not, it’s indisputable that Icelanders have long enjoyed travelling to Spain. Our love for Spanish food has until now been satiated with aspirations of locally reimagined tapas joints. Chefs Esteban Morales and Ernesto Moré are determined to fill that lacuna with their tapas evenings at Bjórgarðurinn.
Tapas and Pintxos
A tapa is a hot or cold appetizer or snack, typically had with drinks in Spain. Originally meant as something to cover the top of one’s drink—or so some claim—today it has evolved into one of the cornerstones of Spanish cuisine.
While anything in small portions is a tapa, a pintxo is usually a topping speared or ‘pinched’ to a slice of bread. On this occasion we sampled vegan seitan pintxos with a silky escalivada. “We want to offer something for everyone. Normally tapas are usually meat or fish,” Esteban points out, “but our seitan is house-made and we’d like vegans to be tapas lovers too.” The seitan is smokey and the texture so meaty that many of us were successfully fooled.
The Tortilla Test
But the true test of a taperia is its tortilla. Essentially an omelette with potatoes, the spuds and onions are poached in olive oil, eggs stirred in, cooked and flipped. Here, the tortilla is a generous hunk, with fluffy potatoes, custardy eggs in the middle, and enough onions to bring them all together. My Spanish dining companions heartily approve.
Typically dinners are late affairs in Spain and ‘ir de tapas’ or to go bar hopping and snack along the way is the customary stop gap until dinner. This laid-back social grazing is hugely popular, and—unsurprisingly—borrowed across the world.
There continues to be a trend of small-plate menus with ‘tapas’ style portions and dishes regardless of cuisine. I’m curious how Esteban sees that. “I think it’s good,’’ he says. “Today there is everything from Pakistani pizza to American pizza. It isn’t just Italian. Tapas, too, is a global thing. And people know it is from Spain.”
Diverse regional food
So what can diners expect from the tapas evenings at Bjórgarðurinn? “Unlike in Spain, in Iceland we don’t have vermuterias or taperias. So a place like Bjórgarðurinn is ideal,” Esteban explains. “I want to showcase the diversity of regional Spanish food, like this gazpacho.” He passes around some thick, zingy soup made with fresh tomatoes. “It’s an Andalusian dish. There is Catalan food, Basque food, Galician food and Valencian food. I’d like people to know Spain more—it isn’t just Flamenco dancers and beaches.”
If the first week was any indication, the tapas nights are off to a splendid start. The hauntingly good music by Reynir Hauksson transports one to Granada, and the Flamenco dancing ends up stirring everyone onto their feet by the end of the night. The reasonably-priced bites—from 390 ISK to 890 ISK—are an attractive offer, rounded off with plenty of tinto de verano red wine spritz. Perhaps, a little slice of Spain resides in Reykjavík after all.
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