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Height of fashion

Tapas from Spain's new-wave chefs balance the classic and the avant garde.

August 04, 2004|Anya von Bremzen | Special to The Times

Barcelona, Spain — MY friend Jose Carlos Capel swings his arm around my shoulder. "Welcome to the tapeo of the future," he shouts, spraying a mojito into his mouth. From a glass atomizer.

In a compulsively social country like Spain, the tapeo -- the act of shuffling from one tapas bar to the next -- is a ritual of near-religious importance. But tonight's tapas bash is a different story. We are at a cocktail reception thrown by Ferran Adria, the high priest of avant-garde cooking whose tapitas run to stuff like miniature loaf pans of frozen "air" flavored with Parmesan and gossamer cones filled with trout eggs and soy gelee.

Adria embraces his signature mad-genius part -- speech jumbled, gaze so intense that his eyes seem to pop out of their orbits. Crowding the theatrically dim reception hall of Hotel Ritz are press (Capel is restaurant critic for El Pais, Spain's largest daily), chefs and sundry members of the city's beau monde, all gasping and gawking at chefs blowtorching quail eggs in order to enclose them in paper-thin squares of caramel colored with gold powder. Adria's assistant, enveloped in clouds of hissing-cold vapors, immerses balls of pistachio paste into a caldron of liquid nitrogen. The Martian popsicles emerge frozen on the outside and liquid inside.

I could use a cold beer but settle instead for hot-and-cold daiquiris and a glass of rum "spherified" into beads using calcium chloride, with coconut milk, pineapple juice and a flourish of cotton candy. It's a pina colada.

Atmospheric dives

Of course, away from Adria's antics, old-school tapas bars still remain happily true to themselves: heart-stoppingly atmospheric dives with jamones (cured hams) hung from the ceiling, walls plastered with bullfighting photos and crowds shouting orders for another round of batter-fried bacalao. Standbys like ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-drenched potato salad), anchovies and potato tortilla seem inescapable.

But beyond basics, the tapa emerges as a truly protean concept. Place a portion of leftover stew in a miniature cazuela and you've got a tapa. Order a cana (small beer), chat up your neighbor, and it's fiesta. Are you surprised that the Spanish prefer hanging out at bars to entertaining at home?

In its original form, the tapa (the word means lid) was a free slice of cheese or jamon topping a glass of sherry -- to protect the drink from flies and dust. The tradition originated in the 19th century in Andalusia, the center of sherry production, where scorching summers make a full meal unthinkable. Today, defined only by function and size -- a bite to accompany drinks -- tapas vary from bar to bar and from region to region.

Galicia is famous for seafood empanadas, Asturias for chorizo braised in hard cider. Andalusians like to nibble on ethereal fried seafood and marinated potatoes, the Basques on a bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers. In worldly Madrid, Madrilenos are forsaking the meatballs and patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy-smoky tomato sauce) of the old tiled tabernas and moving on to smart faux-rustic bars serving boutique wines by the glass, fancy cold cuts boards and smoked salmon canapes.

The array of choices is so mind-boggling, at times, that the entire country seems like one vast bar theme park: wine bars and cheese bars, the breakfast bars of Seville and the beer bars of Madrid, bars out of central casting and neo-moderne haunts with tapas artfully arranged in shot glasses, skewers and spoons.

Traditionally tapas functioned as appetite-teasers, but in modern Spain the verb tapear can easily imply eating a full meal. You start with an elaborate canape, move on to a martini glass of new-wave gazpacho sorbet, progress to something neo-traditional, say olive-oil poached clams with Iberian ham, and end with tiny dessert tapas, usually foamy mousses or unusual granitas and ice creams.

In a country where it's de rigueur for young chefs to collaborate with scientists and where the word deconstruction is uttered in kitchens as routinely as it was at philosopher Jacques Derrida's seminars, a tapeo can also be a ride on the wild side.

"Today's tapa has come a long way [from] a morsel that came on or with bread and was eaten out of hand standing up," Capel, the restaurant critic, explains. "First you dropped the bread, then you started eating tapas sitting down with a knife and fork. Suddenly high-minded chefs are abandoning normal portions in favor of degustation menus of tapas-scaled bites." It was Adria's progressions of 30-plus tiny tastes at El Bulli that sparked the small-plates revolution in Spain in the '90s. In a culture already hooked on grazing, the trend spread like wildfire. The phenomenon has a name: alta cocina en miniatura, or haute cuisine in miniature.

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