Spanish Conquest

The news recently that Spain’s ground-breaking restaurant El Bulli is to close in 2012 left me unmoved. Despite every single review, remark and critique of the place being fulsomely glowing, I never wanted to go. When I think about eating in Spain I think of calamari and rosé consumed on rocks overlooking ocean at dusk, a memory which gives pleasure still. Foams, soils, dusts – the whole molecular movement whereby food stops being food and is reinvented as a series of sensory challenges and scientific experiments may indeed be reshaping the way we think about cooking and eating, may be leading us toward exciting new flavour- and texture- combinations and techniques one day taken for granted. Progress, after all, is inevitable in all forms and should not be stubbornly resisted out of sentimentality. There I was on Easter Day sitting in a strip of a Spanish restaurant in gaudy old Surfers Paradise, thinking these thoughts, but mostly conscious of being in precisely the sort of eating establishment I love best.

Reluctant to wander too far from our respectable hotel, mellowed and a little heady after sunset drinks at the dizzying top of the Q1 building where a bald guitarist reinterpreted ‘80’s hits in the voice of a castrato, or at least an angel, we found ourselves part of a pulsating neon-lit surge of Easter carousers. Restaurant after restaurant gaped cavernously at us – the couple walking too quickly, too uneasily past each – fizzing and frothing out the shrieks of people who may have started celebrating Easter with morning schooners in a club. Malay, Italian pizza, Chinese aeafood, Indonesian, Mexican: enormous rooms spilling out onto the pavement, garishly lit, families at endlessly long tables, waiters rushing harriedly, sirens in the distance. I had put my foot down regarding the all-you-can-eat buffet at our hotel; had even extravagantly suggested we order room service-something – a $30 house burger or a cheese plate curled up with a DVD would have suited me beautifully. And because we could not agree here we were striding through the masses in the frail hope that somewhere would call out to us and lure us in. Suddenly, somewhere did. A simple sign saying ‘La Paella’, a narrow space into which we gratefully escaped, tables mostly occupied but oh the joy of one which was not, and an elderly waiter smiling his way towards us. We sat by the wall from whence I had the view of the bar, a tiny corner space with hanging glasses and a clutter of bottles. Seating close together induced cosiness rather than claustrophobia. Musical instruments and predictable posters – bullfights, Gaudi – adorned the walls; the menu a list of old-fashioned Spanish dishes. There seemed only the one courteous old Spanish waiter somehow managing the entire floor on his own and yet our requests were met instantly. Olives and warm bread to fill the space of a 20-odd minute wait for our zarzuela, Catalan seafood stew. A glass of faintly effervescent rosado translucent strawberry red to help slide down the bottomless bowl of garlicky olives – too many to finish. And then our stew: a wide shallow vessel placed with ceremony on the upper level of a two-tiered stand, empty bowl for shells beneath. A rich scarlet bath of bobbing seafood: clams and mussels, fat prawns and calamari, white fish chunks and paprika, bread dunked in and shells slurped. It was lovely; it held us briefly in its grip but long enough for me to have one of those rare moments of forgetting where I was, of removing me quite completely from where I was. So that when we re-entered the voluble, hectic tawdriness of it all – the shrill street’s cacophony, the hooting hordes – that feeling carried us safely and sweetly back to our respectable hotel.

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