You like food. You always have, can’t help it – you grew up on the stuff.
No matter where you’re from or what kind of food tickles your tastebuds; whether it be a spicy curry, raw sashimi or creamy pasta – Australia, and particularly each of our cosmopolitan capital cities, provides a great melting pot of culture and cuisine to satisfy your love of the grub.
But having so many influences has obviously got a few restaurateurs and cuisiniers around town slightly confused about the correct appellation of their fare. One such common confusion centers on the reckless use of the word ‘tapas’.
‘Tapas’ is not gourmet jargon to be merely thrown around like a dirty tea towel in the kitchen, but a hundreds-year old Spanish culinary tradition in the making. I can see the attraction for restaurants to attach the term to their menu – kind of like in school when you shadowed that popular kid who bossed you around mercilessly, but still made you cool by association. However, just like that idolatry behaviour eventually wore thin, so too is the prevalence of(s)wanky little wine bars charging $8 for a finger bowl of smoked almonds or martini olives, all in the name of tapas. Definitely, not cool.
In fact, it seems the latest trend is to slap the title ‘tapas’ above any menu comprising a range of small share-plates – no matter the actual national cuisine, and charging them at the same price as a standard portion at other restaurants. The following is a list of a few very real examples of these so-called ‘tapas parlours’ spotted in Sydney alone.
A certain unnamed restaurant in Bondi that closed its doors a while back (perhaps related somehow?) had the words ‘Asian tapas’ prominently displayed on its sign for many months, prompting me to finally satisfy my curiosity. As suspected, the small Chinese dishes on the menu were in fact what are commonly known as yum-cha or dim sum. Similarly, a small eatery in the city serving ‘Japanese tapas’ on bright plastic plates rotating on a mechanical conveyor belt looks suspiciously like a sushi train. Friends have also recently brought to my attention other erroneous tapas calls, including ‘Italian tapas’ (antipasti?), and possibly the worst and most pretentious one of all: ‘world-fusion tapas’ (food).
One place that seems to be getting it right is Mojos Tapas Bar on Campbell Parade. Very clearly this place is Spanish, albeit a seemingly strange gothic/pirate/skater interpretation of a Spanish restaurant. Actually, judging from the skull and gothic cross at the entrance and the kooky old-West feel about the interior, Mojos could well be the perfect setting for a Tarantino flick – think From Dusk Till Dawn. As we’re seated, I sincerely hope that the freaky painting hanging above the kitchen depicting a scene of the last supper, with Jesus and disciples portrayed as skeletons in sombreros, is not a prognostication of our gastronomic fate; though the waiter does well to reassure us in his very charming and very camp Spanish inflection: “It’s not like we’re into death or anything.” An absurd and unusual sentence that he has obviously delivered many times before, probably with the same vapid expression and superfluous 360° wave of wrist.
Don’t let this scare you off though. It’s Bondi. I’ve lived here long enough to know that you’ve got to keep an open mind to seeing all sorts around this place. In fact, while the atmosphere at Mojos is a heterogeneous homage to the unusual (and slightly terrifying) – the chefs here have paid suitable respect to some traditional tapas dishes, whilst also adding some creative interpretive touches to old favourites.
There’s no confusion here. These guys know where they’re coming from. At the forefront of the paper clipboard menu, it is explained the origin of the word tapas – a derivative of the verb ‘tapar’, meaning to ‘cover’ in Spanish. It refers to those early days when people would use a piece of bread to cover their wine or sherry to protect it from the fruit flies at the bar. Eventually, savvy bartenders started serving salty accompaniments with the bread such as chorizo and smoked jamón (ham), necessitating the ordering of more wine to cure the resulting thirst. Thus, tapas were born. Clever.
In Spain, tapas tend to vary from region to region, based on the microcosms of cultural influence, as well as the ready availability of produce. For example, tapas plates in Madrid differ considerably from those found in Andalusia (the autonomous southern provinces of Spain), which have been heavily influenced by five centuries of North African Moorish occupation (8-12C). The Moors bought fragrant spices, nuts and other ingredients and cooking methods to Spanish shores, the traces of which have left an indelible mark on the cuisine and landscape, which is dotted by blossomed almond trees and olive groves.
Happily, this heritage has now been spread world-wide, so even someone as far away as Bondi can enjoy traditional tapas such as the Pollo del Moorish ($13) – small pieces of chicken Maryland cooked on the bone with Saffron, preserved lemons, Harissa (Tunisian hot chilli paste) and olives. If doing tapas properly, it is also difficult to pass up Chorizo a la Plancha ($11): sliced pieces of spicy pork sausage with a distinctly smoky essence from ground paprika, which are char grilled and served with a squeeze of lemon to cut through the fats and oils. The menu provides an extensive list of options for vegetarians, with both the Patata Bravas ($8) –spicy potatoes served hot in a terracotta casserole dish, and the garlic mushrooms ($9) being considered favourites among vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Side salsas are also available for $2 or $3 each, which are great for when you’ve exhaustively mopped every remaining drop of sauce at the bottom of the tapas dish with bread (or pinkie). While we wait for more arrivals, we turn our attention to dipping the fresh, crunchy-crusted bread rolls into some creamy Guacamole (mashed avocado, lemon & olive oil), Romanesco (toasted almonds, roasted capsicum and red wine vinegar), and Aji con mama – mama’s chili sauce. Whose mama? Didn’t ask… but presumably one that likes her chili as sugary sweet as it is stingingly spicy – a delightfully palatable combo.
As Spain is mostly girthed by sea, seafood naturally forms a major part of the cuisine. Traditional seafood tapas include Calamares Fritos ($13) – baby squid tossed in flour and spices, then fried til crispy and served with special dipping sauce; Croquetas de Atun ($10) – breadcrumbed tuna croquettes with a creamy, bursting centre; and the grilled Sardinas ($13) – which I won’t insult you by translating, but will mention is an absolute hero of a dish. I also have a feeling the Pulpitos picantes ($8) – marinated baby octopus served in a searingly hot tomato and chili reduction has been plucked from the same recipe book of the infamous mama – also the dish that provides the most juices for said mopping.
I suggest that six or seven tapas to share between four is sufficient, but followed for dessert of course by theEmpanadas Con Negro ($12) – a.k.a. scrumptious, crisp chocolate puff pastry pockets with satiny crème patissier, served with a side of sweet strawberry compote. The empanadas take about 15 minutes to prepare, which guarantees they’ll be fresh and piping hot when served, as well as providing you with an excuse to polish off another carafe of sweet white or red sangria before they arrive.
So if you’re after authentic Spanish tapas, you needn’t go further afield than Mojos at Bondi. Make sure you book though, as this place is always abuzz with noisy banter from happy beachgoers, even in winter when the backpackers have buggered off. This is especially the case between 4-6pm on weekends when Mojos have happy hour specials, when one can sit outside on long wooden benches in the afternoon sun, overlooking the ocean and enjoy any cocktail for a mere $7, to accompany those fantastically tasty tapas – the real kind!
32 Campbell Parade
Bondi Beach NSW 2026
+61 2 9130 1322
Published Camille & Co. June 27, 2011