I wish El Matador was in my basement.
From the long, burl wood bar table in the centre of the room to the flat rock walls, and the compact open kitchen and bar all tucked into the cosy, low-ceilinged space, this Lower Lonsdale room feels like just the place I'd like to welcome friends for a get-together.
It opened late in the summer, with a limited menu of Spanish tapas: bites traditionally served with a glass of wine while bar-hopping through the streets of Seville, Barcelona, or a tiny seaside town in Andalusia, which is exactly what El Matador's owners - Paul Mon-Kau and Jeff Murl - did while researching their concept and menu.
Tapa is the Spanish word for top. Traditionally, tapas were slices of bread, meat or cheese that could be placed on top of the wine or beer to keep the fruit flies at bay. Today, tapas are a fixed element of the culture, as Spanish as flamenco, and, um, matadors.
Mon-Kau and Murl have started slow at El Matador, with pinchos: simple tapenades, cured meats and cheeses atop toasted bread; smoked olives, honeyed almonds and stuffed mushroom caps. But according to the partners, the plan has always been to grow the menu to include charcuterie, from-scratch soups, fresh-baked bread and even homemade cheese.
I decided to give it some time before visiting. I usually wait at least a month before reviewing a new spot anyway, to let it settle in; in this case I figured extra time to let the full menu roll out seemed fitting.
I dropped in last weekend for the first time. I was instantly smitten by the intimate space - located in Starbucks' basement rather than mine, darn it - although it's a smidge too crowded. One less two-top squeezed against the wall, and spacing would be perfect.
Compared to the original menu the roster of offerings is growing, but there is no sign yet of those soups, expanded charcuterie list, or housemade cheese. Still, you know what they say about good things and waiting, so I guess it just means a return visit in the future, which works for me, because I like the tapas at El Matador. It isn't fancy; if you glance into the little kitchen behind the bar you'll be impressed at how much is actually being produced and plated there.
This tapas is the real thing: simple ingredients prepared simply.
First up was a complimentary dish of smoked, pitted olives, then follow-ups were chosen with checkmarks on the paper menu. All items - including cold tapas, ensalada, hot tapas, jamon and dessert - are $5 each. A glass of draft beer is also $5 (though it's a pretty small pour), as are three-ounce glasses of wine. Regular five-ounce glasses are $8. I appreciate the focus on Spanish and local wines, and on local craft beers. I sipped a very berried Beso de Vino blend of Syrah and Grenache, and an earthier Anciano Tempranillo. Bridge Brewing Company's refreshing North Shore Pale Ale made the grade for my date, Big J.
We sampled a decent cross-section of the menu.
Not quite as addictive as Marcona almonds (one of my top 10 snacks of all time), El Matador's version - whole natural almonds tossed in honey and salt - still get you reaching into the bowl for repeats. Baked and smoked chicken wings are saucy and spicy, while mushroom caps stuffed with diced shallots and crimini are a perfect mouthful.
Spicy shrimp in sherry add some good kick to the spread, and chorizo sausage, scored and baked until the skin is crisp was an easy favourite. Also delicious? Carne picada, smoked, shredded and doused in tangy sauce.
Serrano ham, cured and dried for 24 months, came smooth and salty, perfect for folding onto a toast; while bright-tasting salsa fresca added the perfect counterpoint to a round of grilled goat cheese.
We finished with a warm, spiced bread pudding.
It's worth emphasizing that tapas are bite-sized. You can eat a little or a lot, but El Matador is not the spot to come if you're hankering after a generous serving of . . . anything, really. With no TVs, it's also not the place to come and watch the game; there are pubs with big screens for that.
This is a place for socializing, for chatting, for catching up with friends over snacks and a drink. Like my basement, but better.
Including HST, our bill for the evening totalled $90.72.
El Matador Social is downstairs at 131 West Esplanade, North Vancouver; 604-770-1717/ elmatadorsocial.com.
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