Our evening began humbly at a small tapas bar in the Gothic Quarter, around the corner from our rented flat. The space was like a dark wood cave, with a small bar displaying some tapas in the front and some picnic style wooden tables in the back. The menu had what has become the norm for tapas around the world – lots of cured meats, machengo cheese, chorizo, prawns, croquettes. The two glasses of red wine we ordered came in one small glass jug accompanied by two small water glasses. The Chorizo de Diablo literally came out on fire and the flame held for a disturbingly long time. The large plate of peppers were simply blistered and topped with salt. Crispy patatas bravas were smothered in a ridiculous amount of garlic aioli that was so pungent it should have been illegal. The food was delicious, the space was cozy, and the cheap red wine was good.
We moved on from our “light” tapas and headed north to the Example district, a high-rent area with lots of high end fashion stores and hotels. We had booked a table at Hisop, a one Michelin star restaurant that has been open for over ten years. We opted for the a la carte option over the tasting menu, as I feared a potential mid-meal nap would be unavoidable after the fourth or fifth course. I ordered a bottle of Pierre Gimmonet Champagne (a delicious grower champagne, much better and much cheaper than Vevue Cliquot) and the amuses arrived shortly after, a flurry of small bites. Black pudding topped with apple gelee, cockles with mushrooms and turnip carpaccio. The bread course was presented with two different olive oils from different regions of Spain. Kudos to Hisop as well for making gluten free bread for me. Well played Hisop.
The next morning we discussed the previous night. Our highlight? The patatas bravas at the tapas restaurant. Our bill was eight times larger at Hisop, yet our favourite plate was one we have both had at dozens of Spanish restaurants before. Why? Our meal at Hisop was certainly not disappointing. The space was cool, the food was solid. There was no obvious missteps in service. But expectations at that price point are much higher and we expected great but instead got just good. The tapas bar on the other hand was comfortable, quaint and full of character and we had no expectations.
Only focusing on the high-end, highly reviewed and publicized spots while visiting is like going to the Louvre and only seeing the Mona Lisa. You are missing a whole lot. The most simple dishes are the basis of many high-end restaurants menus, with many places doing riffs on the traditional tapas. It is hard to truly appreciate the refined recreations if you have never dined on the originals. So the next time you find yourself in Spain at a tapas bar while waiting for a table a the new hot spot up the street, consider cancelling the booking and order another jug of wine. And definitely more patatas bravas. You can thank me later.