The kingfish adobo at Casa de Tapas is one of the best things I’ve eaten this year.
The dish, served at the new Spanish restaurant at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, isn’t the only treat, however — most of the dishes I tried during a tasting with chef Luis Ezqueta were top-notch. But these juicy cubes of marinated, deep-fried fish were especially memorable.
In Spain, other fish would be used for adobo, but Ezqueta — formerly of At.Mosphere, the restaurant at the top of the Burj Khalifa — chose a locally available fish. He then marinates it overnight in a mix of vinegar, oil and herbs. The result is something that looks like your basic fried fish but packs a surprising punch of tangy flavour. The chef says, with a laugh, that it’s a bit of fusion, but thankfully, most dishes here are respectfully authentic.
“It’s a typical, traditional flavour of Spain,” says Cordoba-born Ezqueta. “The menu is Catalan and Andaluz. I was brought up in Andalusia, but I learned to cook in Catalonia, so I am not only focused on one region.”
With wrap-around, floor-to-ceiling west-facing windows, this is a sunset spot, bar none. It’s decorated with Spanish tiles and plates, but in a light-hearted way, and there’s a TV showing football above the bar, making it a spot where couples (at the romantic window tables) and groups of friends will feel equally like they are in their own casa.
The tapas way of life
“Tapas is a feeling. It’s not food. It’s a way to see life,” says the chef. “I am going to let you know what we do in my city when going for tapas with a friend: it’s something very informal, we meet friends, we talk, we try to fix the world, around a big table or bar, we take some bites and drink.”
If further proof were needed that the atmosphere at the restaurant is assured, consider that it’s run by the guy behind Okku and Claw, Markus Thesleff, who once lived in Spain.
“We felt there was a lack of traditional quality Spanish food as well as Spanish street food, everything was being done too formally,” says Thesleff. “We didn’t think this was an accurate expression of the cuisine and culture. Both Ramzy and myself have great memories of our visits to Spain and the food there and we felt that we would like to showcase the cuisine in a casual, personal and neighbourhood way.”
The food was originally meant to be just for Cielo, the open-air bar he runs upstairs, but “the food was beyond our expectations and we were so happy with it that we felt it should be showcased in its own right, hence we created Casa de Tapas, our homage to traditional and local Spanish food.”
As for its location, in an older part of Dubai, it was again a chance to showcase something he felt people we’re seeing enough of. “We love the Creek and Park Hyatt area and felt it has been overlooked for too long in favour of newer and more fashionable areas.”
A variety of tapas
On the menu, Ezqueta and his mostly-Spanish kitchen crew hit all the tapas bar classics. A creamy tortilla (Spanish omelette) melts with soft-cooked onions and potato. Croquetas, crispy, deep-fried balls of thick bechamel sauce are here flavoured with rich cep mushrooms, rather than the usual ham and cheese (there is a good selection of Spanish cold cuts available, however). And there are also patatas bravas (fried potatoes in spicy sauce), prawns in garlic and chilli, steamed clams, and gazpacho Andaluz, a refreshing cold vegetable soup.
Expect to order three to four dishes from the tapas menu for a meal, says Ezqueta. “I make small portions, because I would like that people don’t only have two tapas, so you can try more flavours.” Tapas range from Dh30-55.
Beyond the small dishes, there are mains such as nine-hour lamb shoulder (made with Spanish lamb imported from the central city of Avila, Dh195, and two-person-sized paellas, including Ezqueta and Thesleff’s favourite dish, a variation called fideua.
The seafood paella (Dh110) is bristling with mussels, clams, langoustines and squid, with the saffron rice holding it together just slightly creamy but somehow, the grains also separate.
The fideua (Dh85) is a nod to Catalan cooking, with short, thin noodles cooked with seafood (here, tiny squid and prawns) in a broth of squid ink for a dark but delicious dish. It’s often topped with dollops of alioli, a garlicky sauce similar to mayonnaise but made without egg yolk. His is authentic; I would have preferred an egg-based thicker sauce, but then again, my memories of a culinary holiday to Spain, where I sought out alioli to the point of obsession, are scented with dollops of jelly-thick garlicky alioli. It’s always hard to live up to those memories — but Ezqueta comes awfully close.