From tapas to paella, a new wave of European eateries is shaking up the city’s dining scene. Penelope Walsh meets the head chef of El Sur to learn about the cuisine’s most modern incarnation in the emirate
Spanish cooking has been seriously lacking in Dubai for a long time.
At the last count at the beginning of 2013, there were only three venues in the entire emirate that could be considered primarily Spanish.
Spain’s Iberian cousins seemed to be picking up the baton in the latter half of 2012, as two new Portuguese restaurants opened (one, sadly, now closed). And then came the Latin fever, as colonial cousins from Peru, Mexico and more blew up the dining scene last year, with new openings from the continent popping up over the past 12 months, and some still in the pipeline.
But things now are looking up, as the number of Spanish eateries in the city is set to double in less than six months. The tapas and a tipple side of the country’s dining is the dominant force, with the opening of Salero Tapas and Bodego at Kempinski Mall of the Emirates at the end of November, and Cielo tapas and lounge bar at Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, due to open January, by the team behind Okku.
But the first of the three new haunts to open in this recent wave is perhaps the most exciting, since it marks Dubai’s first move away from the traditional and tapas focussed model we have seen so far.
Also launched in November, at The Westin Mina Seyahi, new restaurant El Sur marks Dubai’s first taste of the modern school of Spanish cooking that has had the rest of the world in something of a tizz. Heading up the kitchen at El Sur is Salamanca born chef Juan Carlos González Hernández, who has previously worked at El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca, both in Gerona, Catalonia, and both famed as two of the very best restaurants in the world, with highly respected chefs at their helm.
Chef Juan Carlos tells us Dubai is fairly well acquainted with Spanish food, at least the traditional cuisine, if not yet the modern. In relation to Spain’s neighbours France and Italy, and their largely better known cuisines, Juan Carlos explains: ‘It is not so different. We share the Mediterranean and the same passion in our cooking.’ Juan Carlos jokes that the Italians have simply been better at marketing their food to the world.
‘It is really about the quality of the produce. If you have good produce, you can do whatever you want. The ingredients of the Mediterranean and Spanish flavours are very natural. The Spanish cuisine has become very important in the world, because of many chefs such as Joan Roca, from the best restaurant in the world, and Ferran Adria.’
Core to the Spanish cooking philosophy, he explains, is respect for ingredients, simple cooking techniques that show off the natural flavour, and, he adds: ‘passion.’ At El Sur, the starting point is traditional Spanish concepts. ‘But we change it a little.
Not crazy – I don’t like crazy – but to make it a little unexpected but still with respect for the ingredients.’
Juan Carlos adds this modern take is a result of time spent in the kitchens of El Bulli and El Cellar de Can Roca: ‘They changed my way of thinking about food. For example, it you need an acid in a dish there are many, many different acids you can use – it doesn’t always have to be lemon. You can use yuzu, for example. Also, the techniques – some of techniques are crazy but not exactly complicated because once you understand the process, it is easy.’
He gives us examples of varieties of gelatin he’s encountered that react differently to heat, some becoming solid when cooled, and some when heated. ‘So you can prepare ice-cream that is hot with this ingredient.’ Also new to him is the technique of making ‘caviar’ by pippetting drops of a puree or sauce into a bath of calcium, creating little pearl-like balls.
On the next page, Juan Carlos talks us through the marriage of tradition and modern creativity in El Sur’s signature dishes.
El Sur, The Westin Mina Seyahi, ubai Marina (04 399 4141).
More Spanish bites
Excellent tapas at good prices and a lovely, shaded terrace.
Al Qasr Hotel, Madinat Jumeirah, Umm Suqeim (04 366 6730).
A fantastic atmosphere and tasty, classic dishes here.
Wafi, Oud Metha (04 324 4777).
Hit and miss mains in Lafayette Gourmet but great desserts.
Galeries Lafayette, The Dubai Mall (050 910 3249).