Imagine the sensation of the back of your throat tightening up, then your tongue feeling as if it’s in a brace before what feels like a bed of lava defies gravity and creeps its way up your face. That delicious pain happens every so often when you order the Padrón peppers at España, a hot new tapas restaurant in Vancouver’s West End.
Here’s the thing with Padrón peppers: these small green beauties all look the same, but they don’t all pack such a powerful punch. Roughly one in 20 zings with heat, while the others are mild and sweet—and there’s no way to tell one from the next. Consider it playing pepper Russian roulette.
Pan-fried till blistered, coated in fine olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse sea salt, the Padrón peppers are an authentic taste of Spain and just one example of how España takes diners on a culinary journey to the land of flamenco and Francisco Goya. Tapas-style dining is nothing new in Vancouver, but it’s still my favourite way of eating out, whether it’s date night or a group gathering. And España gets it right.
It’s no wonder, given that it’s owned by industry vets chef Neil Taylor, once-executive chef at Cibo Trattoria, and Edward Perrow, who was formerly managing partner at Bins 941 and 942. Perrow keeps a close eye on the floor, filling up water glasses, offering sherry pairing suggestions, and generally making sure no diner is left wanting. The décor is simple but warm, with dark-wood furniture and hanging light fixtures to match, as well as oversize wooden-framed mirrors hanging on white walls. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t need to: I’m sure it was Manu Chao playing on the stereo around 6:30 p.m. on a Friday visit, but by 7 p.m. the place was packed and the background music no longer audible.
Adventurous carnivores have much to choose from: nightly specials on this trip included rabbit-liver pâté with anchovies, veal sweetbreads, and rabbit loin. Then there are sautéed duck livers, Iberian ham croquettes, and the ubiquitous crispy pork belly (here served with white beans in a Romesco sauce). But vegetarians aren’t the least bit neglected, with options including plump white beans slow-cooked in aged sherry vinegar, lush and crispy Monte Enebro goat cheese licked with orange-blossom honey, and smoked paprika pistachios. (I overheard Perrow telling the people at the table next to us, a neighbourhood couple who had already visited the place three times, that menu items will be changing regularly. He confirmed that in a follow-up inquiry, noting that selections will vary depending on what’s available locally.)
The menu also has sections dedicated to cheese and charcuterie. We didn’t even make it there, though, seduced as we were by everything else. Crispy chickpeas are perfect finger food, tossed with sweet and hot paprika and a tiny bit of mint. Wide strips of orange peel tangle with marinated Andalusian olives in a generous, comforting starter. Pine nuts and juicy raisins appear in the Catalan spinach, a traditional veggie dish that injects liveliness into leafy greens.
The only number we weren’t thrilled with was the chorizo, which was topped by an overpowering saffron mayo that ruined the sausage and the accompanying potato-and-red-pepper salad. The result tasted like wet cardboard, and that couple next to us sent theirs back for the same reason. The flaky, buttery lingcod made up for that disappointment. Paella was another tempting option, but our server cautioned us that it would likely be too much, given the amount we’d already eaten. The biggest item on the menu, it’s also the most expensive, at $30. Remember it’s meant to be shared.
Skipping that traditional rice dish meant there was room for dessert, and the churros didn’t let us down. In fact, they cheered us right up. I don’t care how reserved you are, it’s impossible not to have a laugh when these extra-thick and extra-long doughnuts arrive in front of you: they’re particularly phallic-looking. Choices for dipping sauces are a sweet-meets-sour dulce de leche topped with house-made yogurt or rich, warm chocolate; we opted for both.
I love the strictly Spanish wine list, on which sherry features prominently. (Flights of three one-ounce glasses are available.) Perrow made the right call in suggesting the Alvear Solera Cream sherry to go with dessert, with its hints of nuts, vanilla, and honey. Dry cava is a super, sparkly way to get started.
Dinner for two with three alcoholic drinks, six dishes, one dessert, and two coffees (deliciously French-press) came to $78 before taxes and tip.