Give them tapas — everyone loves appetizers for dinner 

Whether they’re called tapas, hors d’oeuvres, amuses-gueules, antipasti, acepipes or antojitos, serving small, distinctive foods to discerning diners is a growing trend in hotel bars and lounges across the country.

Traditionally, tapas refers to a variety of Spanish appetizers — from simple olive and cheese selections, to much more elaborate creations — designed to accompany an aperitif. However, the idea gradually evolved into a distinctive cuisine, where guests combine a miscellany of small dishes to make a meal in a relaxed and jovial atmosphere. More than one chef has joked that tapas is dinner for people with a fear of commitment, and it’s this concept that’s taken off in the U.K. and North America.

“I think people are fed up with nachos and wings,” says Jon Sweeney, executive chef at Hilton Suites Toronto/Markham Conference Centre & Spa. “To get away from the big burger and the club sandwich in Absolute, our upscale jazz bar, we decided to do tapas or ‘petit’ plates. It’s worked very well for us.” While the tapas menu is a bit more labour intensive than just plopping a batch of wings in the deep-fryer, Sweeney says his cooks, especially the young apprentices, enjoy the chance to prepare an actual dish and exercise a little creativity.

Among Absolute’s nine offerings are small thin-crust pizzas (Thai chicken, earthy goodness vegetarian), a portobello mushroom and eggplant satay in hot sauce, and scallops with lime and crab ($9 to $14). Sweeney says the shift to tapas encourages guests arriving for the show to order a bite as well, and brought the lounge’s  average check up.

At Vancouver’s funky Opus Lounge, small food takes the form of “O Bites.” These are snacks inspired by street foods from around the world, updated with modern presentations, says Don Letendre, executive chef for Opus Hotel and its Elixir resto. Dishes range from $8 to $14, with platters around $40; a few late-night favourites are crispy-fried olives and chicken karage (a fried Japanese dish) layered into a Chinese-style take-away box with chopsticks. “We find people are eating smaller so they don’t have to be tied down for three hours at a dining-room table. This kind of food allows you to graze while you drink and move on,” he says.

Since Opus Lounge features a mix of small tables, as well as many standing guests, the limited serving surface presents a challenge. Letendre addresses this by using small plates and lots of skewers, with ensembles of four small plates resting on one plate for larger tables — a display that also encourages sales to other parties. He says it’s important to understand your crowd when creating a menu. For example, the food choices and presentations preferred by late-night hipsters are likely to vary considerably from those of a yuppie couple popping in after seeing Phantom.

David Garcelon, executive chef at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York, also stresses the importance of matching food to atmosphere. “Our Library Bar has the feel of a grand old hotel with classic furnishings. It’s really an old-style martini bar, so we want to make sure the food fits — no quesadillas,” he says.

The Library Bar’s menu, called “Evening Cocktail Snacks to Share,” starts with a plate of three different warm olives for $3, and goes up to $138 for an ounce of Sevruga caviar, with most single dishes around $10. “For us, it encourages people to stay for that second drink, order a little snack while talking, and hopefully come into [our restaurants] Epic or Piper’s,” Garcelon says.

The Le G Hyper Bistro at Montreal’s Hotel Le Germain has a large early evening crowd meeting for both business and leisure. Food and Beverage director Marie-Pier Veilleux says offering an assortment of small dishes means a bigger capture ratio for the restaurant. But it’s fun, too. “People like to share. It’s really an experience, and people who enjoy food and pair it with wine, like to try new things,” says Veilleux. Le G specialties that invite a glass or two include roasted red onion stuffed with orzo and celery root, monkfish and oxtail terrine, and bread pudding and goat cheese in tomato confit.

At Opus, Letendre sees huge potential for cocktail and food pairing in the lounge, and he’s currently experimenting with a few possibilities. “[We have] a Spanish olive tempura stuffed with a white anchovy that could pair with a dirty martini. Or you could skewer hot olives over a classic martini,” he says. “Because of a space problem in lounges, you could even have a glass that fits right on the plate, making it more apparent you are pairing these products.”

There is an almost endless variety of tapas-type foods, inspired by cultures the world over. To be a successful hotel lounge, however, every offering needs a few basic characteristics. Most importantly: the dish has to be both easy to eat and share.

“The less knife and fork involvement, the more people are going to feel comfortable eating it… hence the skewer,” says Letendre. It’s especially important, he adds, in a mixed social setting where no one wants to look ungainly in front of the opposite sex. Building on that, Garcelon notes, “You want to be comfortable sharing the plate with someone you don’t know that well, so it needs to be easily taken apart and divided.” Garcelon also recommends items be quick to prepare, so cocktail servers — already busy keeping glasses full — will want to sell them. If servers have to wait around the kitchen while someone lovingly simmers the demi-glace, they won’t push the food,
he says.

Finally, the Hilton Suites’ Sweeney says the tapas concept links back to the general trend of nutrition, and even quality of life. “These are healthy, fresh items — so you use fresh tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, small portions and don’t go heavy on the sauce,” he says. “It’s a whole different atmosphere to eating — that Mediterranean concept of being together, sharing a meal, and enjoying a nice glass of wine and good conversation on a summer night.” And in the cold darkness of February, what weary Canadian traveller could
resist that?                         


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