Tapas, tapas everywhere – excessive, don’t you think? Seems to me that every Tom, Vik, and Hari thinks he can plop down a minuscule amount of food on a teeny tiny plate and charge a premium for it by calling “tapas”. Was that what El Tablao, this new, supposedly Spanish restaurant in Koramangala, was going to be about?
Thankfully not. In my opinion, there are very few restaurant owners or chefs in this city who understand what tapas are supposed to be – you can count them on the fingers of one hand, even if a couple of your fingers have been amputated. To that very short list, I am happy to be able to add new kid on the block Sachin Nair of El Tablao.
Sachin belongs to the rapidly increasing tribe of prodigal sons who have taken the R2I plunge. El Tablao represents his idea of an “ideal” tapas taverna. Accordingly, the restaurant is a laid out as a wide open space featuring wooden benches and chairs, with a bar and a semi-open kitchen at the far end. Decor comprises a mix of bright colors, Spanish motifs and prints, and cantina-style light fittings.
El Tablao’s tapas menu
At first glance, the menu is somewhat disconcerting – steak as a tapa? Quesadillas, nachos and fajitas? WTF? We decided to plunge ahead regardless, ordering mejillones en salsa vino blanco (mussels in white wine sauce – should read “con salsa” or “al salsa”), estofado vasco (beef stew – but isn’t “beef” vaca, not “vasco“?); castillas de cerdo (pork ribs), seleccion de embutidos curados (a platter of cold cuts) and chuletas de cordero (lamb chops). They arrived in quick succession, each in its own unfussy little tapas bowl.
The mussels (Rs. 185) were cooked to a plump juiciness, their sweet, melting softness offset by the creamy wine sauce. Red peppers and a sprinkling of fresh herbs added the finishing touch – they made the dish visually appealing, and woke the white sauce up. I have to extend kudos to the El Tablao kitchen, because getting shellfish right requires perfect timing. A few seconds too long, and you’ve got rubber instead of seafood; fail to clean them properly, and you end up with a mouthful of grit. El Tablao treats shellfish with the respect it deserves; The Spouse declared he had never tasted mussels as buttery as these. For those of you who will inevitably want to know “how many mussels to a serving?”, I’d say about a dozen medium-sized specimens – but that’s just a guesstimate.
The beef stew (Rs. 180) was impressive too, the tender meat retaining enough “bite” to indicate that it had been braised for a long time rather than subjected to the travesty of pressure cooking (if I’m wrong and it was indeed pressure cooked, I want to know how). The succulent morsels of beef were presented in a thin soup-like sauce that begged to be mopped up with bread – which we ordered at once. If you enjoy robust flavors, this is what you should order. We have tried this dish more than once – and each time was just as good as the last.
By this time we had asked the wait staff to keep the bread coming until we told them to stop, so we were able to simply dunk bread in olive oil and placed a slice of meat on top. Super yum! (We often do this at home as well, but it’s always better when someone else serves you, right?).
Of the two rib meats, I preferred the pork to the lamb – and that’s more of a tribute to the former than a comment on the latter. Although there was nothing remotely Spanish about El Tablao’s barbecued pork spare ribs (Rs.290) I enjoyed them. Kinda. Granted, the marinade probably came out of a bottle and the ribs were smothered rather than coated in sauce – still, they had a nice smoky flavor that was discernible even under the too-sweet sauce. Plus, there’s something irresistible about food that has to be torn into with your hands, especially in a fine dining setting!
As for the lamb chops (Rs. 280) – they were more sedate and not as in-your-face as their porcine counterparts. They had been thoroughly coated with a herb-based rub, and had a nice, smoky aroma suggestive of having being grilled over coal instead of in an oven. The lamb’s milder, more subtle flavors and (to be honest) a full stomach made it impossible for me to be impressed – more a problem with me than with the lamb. Vacuum Cleaner and The Spouse, however, had no such issues, and delighted in the perfect done-ness of the meat.
Back for more
Since that first visit, we have gone back for more. Here’s a quick summary of all we have sampled:
Paella Valenciana (Rs. 320 per head, minimum two persons). Spain’s version of pulao, in its”original” Valencian form. This particular avatar featured squid, chicken, shrimp,mussels, fish, asparagus, green peas, red peppers and artichokes. The rice was properly al dente, each grain separate from the other and redolent with the saffron.
Warning: El Tablao’s paella is prepared from scratch and served piping hot, still in the pan, so you need to give them 40 minutes’ notice if you would like to try paella. Depending on how hungry you are by the time the dish arrives, a portion for two could probably stretch to accommodate three people.
Tosta da jamon (Rs. 180) By the way – that’s pronounced “ham-on”, darling, not jamon. Like bruschetta topped with a slice of serrano ham. El Tablao gave these an interesting twist by using a very mild but richly flavored Mex-style salsa instead of chopped tomato. These little morsels show a lot of promise, but the amount of tomato used completely overwhelmed the delicate taste of the ham – an unfortunate error that El Tablao has promised to correct.
Fricassee de setas (Rs. 83). Described on the menu as “wild mushroom fricasee“. I didn’t think the mushrooms were any more wild than the button mushrooms found in our local markets, and I always thought that a fricassee, by definition, involved meat.
That said, the mushrooms weren’t, as they are in so many restaurants, overcooked to the point of being limply resigned to their fate; the onions were soft and sweet; and the dish was fragrant with herbs. Thumbs up!
Aside: El Tablao offers eleven vegetarian tapas selections, plus salads, a few vegetarian snacks, and vegetable paella.
Ensalada de espinacas y aguacate (Rs. 110). Spinach, cucumber and avocado salad. This, for me, plays one of the starring roles in El Tablao’s very competent repertoire.
Olive oil, buttery avocado, crunchy cukes, and tender spinach leaves speckled with crushed black pepper – a complex textural composition, achieved with simple ingredients and flavors. Highly recommended in hot weather!
Chorizo frito al vino (Rs. 230). Little chunks of chorizo sausage sauteed in red wine. This is one of those “help me, I can’t stop!” snacks. The spicy sausage marries well with the flavor of red wine, and the sour notes of the fermented meat add an interesting flavor.
If you’re imbibing wine or sangria (the only options, since El Tablao lacks a liquor license), this, to my mind, is the perfect go-with nibble. It’s something I now plan to order every time I visit El Tablao.
Langostinos a la plancha con salsa de ajo y mantequilla (Rs. 210). Half a dozen butter-soft grilled tiger prawns lightly bathed in garlic butter.
Like I said before – they know how to handle shellfish. ‘Nuff said.
Cheese platter (Rs. 230). A fairly good assortment of cheeses, including some local cheeses, served with crackers. I especially enjoyed the sharp green cheese. Perfect after a satisfying meal.
Sangria (Rs. 1200). Definitely give this a try.
El Tablao eschews sweet wine for something more dry, and the sangria sits – as it should – overnight, until the fruit is macerated and has released its juices into the wine. They are not stingy with the quantity of fruit, so the result is outstanding – though perhaps a wee bit more fizz would be nice.
You get a largish pitcher for the price – a good deal, methinks.
Not perfect, but getting there
Was there anything I didn’t like about El Tablao? Well, the bread neither impresses nor arrives quickly enough. And if you order “a martini”, that’s exactly what you’ll get – Martini Bianco – the vermouth, not the cocktail. The music tends to be an endless loop of Gypsy Kings rather than good flamenco. Jaleo this is not!
Overall, though, no real complaints unless I’m being picky. And I’m never picky, am I? Olé!
612/1, 80 Foot Road
Koramangala 4th Block
Bangalore 560 034
Phone: +91 9902336811