(BUSINESS TIMES) - There is no shortage of Spanish food in Singapore. There is a shortage of authentic Spanish or, heck, even good food with an imaginary Spanish lineage. There is a shortage of understanding that it is what goes on a plate that makes it a tapa, not the smallness of the actual plate.
Enter Tapas Club, which has given itself the noble mission of addressing the above, and at more affordable prices. This is because it is run by Jose Alonso, the head chef of Binomio restaurant which serves rather expensive Spanish food. Nobody forces him to cook expensive food at Binomio, but since he does, he knows there are people who don't want to pay for it. So his task is to reach out to a wider demographic with presumably little exposure to Spanish culture and cuisine.
In the process (and to our chagrin), he has created a near-caricature of Spain, as if he ripped out a page from a tourist brochure and gave it to his interior designer, who then googled "Spanish architecture stereotypes" and created a faux-brick and wrought iron countryside scene on the second floor of Orchard Central.
There are posters of Spanish landscapes hanging on the walls, protected by wrought iron "cages" to resemble old-fashioned balconies. Beneath these balconies "grow" plastic rose bushes. The designer also googles "loud traditional Spanish music" and adds that to the inhouse sound system. And to complete the authentic rustic, countryside ambience, the shopping centre provides insects that bite us.
181 Orchard Road, Orchard Central
#02-13 to 15
Tel: 3163 7577
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm (till 12am on Fri, Sat and eve of public holidays)
What he lacks in interior design finesse is thankfully made up for in the food, which chef Alonso and compatriot Manuel Berganza deliver with effortless ease. We know because we are given a not-so-scenic table just in front of the kitchen where the two chefs work cheerfully, chatting and bopping in time to the loud music.
Food is turned out at a crisp clip - nothing complicated, just simple Spanish basics that hit the spot but don't exactly reach any high notes.
Mushroom croquetas (S$9.90) are creamy bechamel-enriched morsels wrapped in a light crisp deep-fried batter that are just a tad short of piping hot. Pickled mushrooms counter the richness if you need it.
Gambas Al Ajillo (S$12.90) has just the right mix of chilli heat, garlic and oil giving a sheen to a generous portion of shrimp. A bit of stock and the shrimp juices create an addictive sauce to be mopped up by the home-made bread.
It's let down mainly by the average quality of the shrimp, which is the same issue with the otherwise well-executed Calamares con Chorizo (S$12.90). The small squids are tasteless despite a nice charred flavour and a smoky chorizo and creamy pumpkin filling. Squid ink and pea puree finish it off.
Pluma Iberica (S$20) is grilled pork collar that's pink and very tender, on the salty side but with satisfying grill top notes and aioli on the side, served with slippery soft grilled eggplant and red peppers.
The highlight of the meal is the Fideua Negra (S$25), Spain's answer to local Hokkien char mee. Short, fine pasta noodles are sauteed in aromatics and heady seafood stock intensified with squid ink, reduced into a lighter version of paella with lots of chopped squid and a shower of fresh clams. The mark of good fideua pasta is to get them to stay standing up in the pan, but the chefs probably skipped this step.
We end off with churros (S$8) - skinny fried dough sticks that are crunchy enough on the outside if a little too dense inside, that you dip into a pot of unctuous melted chocolate. Resist using the churros as spoons to scoop up all the chocolate.
Tapas Club serves no-brainer food that the two Spaniards could probably cook blind-folded. It's decent, no-frills food in cheery if contrived surroundings. It's hard to create any kind of warmth in a cold and characterless shopping mall but maybe such kitschy, loud, in-your-face exuberance might be just what the place needs.
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.