Padrón are the witches’ fingers of peppers—gnarled, pointy and green—and one in 10 is hellishly hot. In Spain’s tapas bars, they’re pan-seared until black and blistered, then sprinkled with sea salt. At Patria, the relentlessly glitzy Spanish restaurant that opened on King West last year, I watched a quartet of women with feathery weaves gingerly bite into their peppers, as if on an episode of Fear Factor, and relax when they proved safe. You eat them as a dare, and that’s part of the fun.
Toronto seems to rediscover Spanish restaurants every decade or so. They promise a special-night-out fizz, abetted by the pass-the-croquetas chaos of shared plates. The newest batch—Carmen and Bar Isabel—opened downtown and cater to the influx of loft-condo singles, who like their restaurants to feel like nightclubs.
The mood at Carmen, in the row of restaurants west of Trinity Bellwoods on Queen, is more like a house party. In the summer, Veronica del Carmen Laudes, who also own Torito in Kensington Market, and Luis Valenzuela open the windows, and the hubbub carries far down the street. The room, unlike other Queen West restaurants that resemble pioneer villages, presents a sensory overload of painted Andalusian tiles, red leather benches and ornate ironwork (the brand of garish, like Bizet’s, that’s good in small doses). Looming over our table was a floor-to-ceiling Goya print of a sultry doña, who looked like a sister of the buxom women in fetishistic nun garb adorning the walls at Patria. Seduction, we’re to understand, is a Spanish thing.
Valenzuela, Carmen’s chef, divides his dishes into classics (warmed citrusy olives, crisp-battered artichokes with creamy aïoli, deep red strips of serrano ham) and what he calls “tapas de vanguardia,” which are mildly innovative but not the mind-boggling stuff of the Spanish school of molecular gastronomy pioneered by Ferran Adrià. He compresses cubes of watermelon for concentrated fruitiness, drizzles them with lime and olive oil, then tops them with salty flakes of dried serrano ham. There’s a version of the padrón, too, only Valenzuela substitutes the near-identical and easier-to-source shishito peppers and surrounds them with a pool of bright red tomato sauce and a slick of floral olive oil to complement their sweetness. That night, my luck ran out as I bit into the one-in-10 pepper and was rewarded with a mouthful of acidic fire. It wasn’t habanero calibre, exactly, though hot enough to necessitate an extra round of the house sangria, served quaintly in jam jars.
The menu notes that paella is “meant to be shared in a kindhearted and casual manner,” which I took to be a sly jab at the sort of Torontonian who stuffily avoids tapas restaurants. Valenzuela warns his customers that it takes 45 minutes to prepare, which is a cue to order more tapas. It’s easy to overcook paella, but ours was perfect: savoury, saffron-scented rice larded with chubby, caramelized scallops, charred hunks of chorizo, and a clattering haul of clams and mussels. Here and there, Valenzuela placed dabs of nutty pesto. Some restaurants devote a suspicious amount of time to artistic presentation to distract from the blandness of the food, but Valenzuela’s plates are as pretty as they are tasty. For dessert, he drizzles a pineapple with a tart balsamic reduction and molasses, then dusts the plate with lime zest and crushed pink peppercorns.