SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - We have to admit we are pretty particular when we eat out.
We raise a disdainful eyebrow if a non-Japanese makes our sushi, and we get excited if a Thai chef is making our beef noodles or tom yam. We will not kick up a fuss if a non-Italian makes our pasta or pizza, but when it comes to Spanish food, we want it made by someone who can pronounce mar i muntanya (sea and mountain) with a perfect Catalan twang.
Which is why La Pepa did not quite imbue confidence in us when we first stepped into this low-key café with Spanish tapas aspirations. Although it's in hipster territory, it has the stripped-down look of a budget operation, right down to the ill-made curtains leading to the toilet. The main dining area is functional rather than edgy or design-forward, with plain wooden chairs and bar stools.
Yet, we could not feel more at home at La Pepa, which feels like a family-run entry even though it's not. That is because of its easy-going, not-at-all Spanish employees who were unpolished but genuinely nice, and happy to leave you alone for as long as you want to linger even when you are the only table at lunchtime.
Although we are told there is one local and one Spanish chef in the kitchen, we are almost certain they are lying because constant peeking into the kitchen did not give any hint of anyone with a foreign passport.
We are expecting a roll call of pseudo-tapas when the Mushroom Croquetas (S$8) arrived - three panko-crusted croquettes filled with a mushroom-and-bechamel mixture that is firm, creamy and studded with minced mushroom such that you get more flavour from the mushrooms than the cream. It is like eating undiluted cream of mushroom soup deep fried in a crust made crunchier with panko. It is Spanish tapas made by a chef well-informed of the Singaporean taste profile - knowing full well we like crunch over soft crumb.
We found out later that the chef is local but used to work at FOC. What he has done is push out a recogniseable menu straight out of Tapas 101, but it is stuff he has obviously mastered.
Where: 10 Gemmill Lane
Open: noon to 3pm (weekdays), 6.30 to midnight (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
So we got totally credible Pan con Tomate (S$10) - light-as-air baguette slices toasted till light and crisp all the way through. You get this satisfying shattering of crumbs infused with olive oil and crushed tomatoes. For an extra S$10, you get to pick a topping of Iberico bellota or smoked sardines. It is not as good as Gaig's version, but it is pretty good.
The Spanish Tortilla (S$8) is a perfect disc of golden yellow that looks like a pancake waylaid by a bicycle pump. It is an omelette by any other nationality, pretty and puffy, designed to be slashed to reveal its creamy filling of barely-cooked egg, onions and potatoes. It is well-executed, although we have never really been fans of onions in eggs.
We hope it is not a fluke, but La Pepa does that Spanish basic of grilled octopus (Pulpo a la Gallega, S$20) with a simple flair that can put complacent Spanish-born chefs to shame. Texture-wise, it's in that happy space between rubbery and mushy - pliable and tender with just enough resilience, generously dusted with paprika, on a bed of chunky potato. It seems like such a no-brainer, yet so few chefs here can get it right.
We are not swooning over its paella (S$26 to S$36), of which we picked the meat version over the seafood one. It could have been a mistake. Ours was served in a little black paella pan that's badly burned around the edges. There's charred and there's burnt - the next step for this would be a fire alarm.
It did not really affect the rice itself, which was infused in broth and studded with bits of meat and bone, but it just lacked kick.
We also found out later that the dessert chef is from Argentina. Not quite Spain but never mind. She makes this dreamy, must-have dessert of homemade fresh milk curd served with honey and berries (Cuajada con Miel y Fruitas, S$12). It is the only dessert worth having, because the churros (S$10) were a pale version of what they should be - blonde and crisp on the outside, pale and pasty inside.
While one should not have too high expectations of La Pepa - its repertoire is too limited and not exactly challenging - cheers to the little place that sticks to what it does well and is totally free of pretence. We could use more of them.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.