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Bar grub

Tapaz
Triq Santu Wistin,
St Julian’s
Tel: 2138 3634

Food: 5/10
Service: 8/10
Ambience: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Overall: 6/10

In the UK a mere pork scratching or salted peanut will suffice. In Malta, the equivalent would be a handful of olives and a slab of ħobż biż-żejt. These are your average bar snacks - hardly countertop temptations.

But what if bar grub could actually be sensational? Spain, much like the Greeks with their mezzes, has an entire class of small meals designed to accompany alcoholic drinks. This is eye-catching food that is petite, irresistibly good and cheap; a miniature art form that beautifully showcases the country’s finest produce and culinary creativity. Consisting of plate upon plate of enticing titbits, seldom enjoyed without alcohol, the sampling of tapas can prove a hearty and intoxicating affair. On a tapas-bar crawl, Spaniards may visit as many as six bars - all before dinner!

This is a way of eating that has practically evolved into a cuisine in its own right. From meatballs and grilled sardines to bacalao fritters, classic croquetas and brochettes, the sheer volume and variety of tapas is quite incredible. They have come a long way. These spectacular morsels have now been catapulted to exalted heights, exemplifying the progressiveness of Spanish cuisine.

Nowadays, tapas are dished up in rustic tabernas and crammed, smoky bars just as they are served in Spain’s Michelin decorated restaurants. Michelin-star chefs have created lavish tapas menus that provide a delightfully decadent degustation of heavenly morsels. They are the stuff of epicurean dreams; traditional yet terribly avant-garde.

Originating in the bars of Southern Spain in the 19th century, tapas are no longer utilised as lids to keep dust and flies out of alcoholic drinks - a small plate would have acted as a cover for one’s glass while simultaneously carrying nibbles like nuts or jamón - but they have become indispensable to the Spanish way of life. And thank God for that.

A spot of shopping in St Julian’s and the promise of a boozy, early dinner had landed us at Tapaz where we found ourselves studying a menu that had us inexpertly rolling our r’s. Tapeo, the traditional art of eating tapas, is a social ritual; a ritual that celebrates food and the joy of savouring it. Tapaz clearly endorses this. What they are selling here is a style of shared-plate dining, a form of communal eating, that encourages leisurely eating and intense socialisation.

A name like Tapaz might signal a serious commitment to all things Spanish, but this is tapas with a twist - this is Mediterranean fusion tapas. When used in a culinary sense, fusion is the sort of word that can delight and terrify in equal measure. Various marriages of diverse cuisines and culinary traditions have unleashed as many god-awful creations as sublime ones.  This seemed a low-risk type of fusion. A  marriage between Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean was surely bound to succeed.

Tapaz had failed to bring out the rampantly shameless glutton in me

Five minutes into our dinner and we knew that all was not right.

The calamares, deep-fried calamari rings, were very mediocre. They lacked crunch and oomph. The pinchos de carne; tasty beef fillet skewers, still pink in the centre; were gratifying to chew with a texture that was the perfect balance of tenderness and tension. They came served alongside nicely roasted vegetables.

The kitchen also introduced us to its very own brand of barbecue sauce; a shockingly sweet, darkly violent condiment, sticky and gooey and exceptionally acidic. A tzatziki would doubtlessly have proved a much nicer accompaniment. Its garlicky, sour freshness would have offset the meat fabulously.

The patatas bravas; fried potatoes, seasoned and cut into small cubes; looked like a faithful version of the dish but were overly greasy. They came topped with a fiery tomato salsa.  We ate through a bowlful of crisp pita bread. It went down a treat with the grilled halloumi which was nicely charred. With a high melting point, this salty cheese lends itself well to frying and grilling. It will soften but never quite melt. Tapaz’s grilled halloumi was far too rubbery for my liking.

An ill-advised plate of the dato from the ‘Tapas on Bread’ section of the menu, left a sour note. It consisted of pulled duck and spicy cheese on puff pastry triangles. The flaky pastry forming the base of this morsel was dry, tired and stale; as were the stringy strands of duck meat. The cheese seemed to be nothing more than an ordinary, poor-quality cheddar. The dato was a missed opportunity and we were forced to leave most of it.

Another open sandwich listed under the same ‘Bread’ section saw slices of jamón serrano draped over a bed of toasted white bread, studded with chunks of goat cheese and a sprinkling of arugula. The bread was not the freshest and the cheese was far too vinegary, but worst of all was the sickly sweet mustard that had been drizzled over the entire sandwich; the kind you’d expect to find dousing the cheapest of cheaply made hot dogs.

I didn’t feel particularly well fed. Although I would like nothing more than to eat my way through Spain, Tapaz had failed to bring out the rampantly shameless glutton in me. Spain’s culture is a notoriously sociable one with a deep-rooted sense of community. Tapeo defines the Spanish way of life and preserves it. The teeming tapas bars of Spain; brimming with the clinking of glasses and plates of gorgeous food, lively with laughter and unhurried conversation; bear testament to this.

And while the atmosphere at Tapaz may be merry and bright, the decidedly mediocre food delivers only a lacklustre sparkle. Perhaps this isn’t the place for a tapas enthusiast. This is not fabulous Spanish cooking, a fitting tribute to tapas. Any botched attempts at Mediterranean fusion are but minor details. A key element is sorely missing and it is the overall quality of the dishes.

Tapaz is the kind of place where you might lose a night to the booze and the ambience - but not to the food.

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