YOU CAN HEAR the late-afternoon buzz in the kitchen of Spanish restaurant Catalunya in Wan Chai. Slices of bread are spread with a layer of truffle paste, which will be combined with Iberico ham and mozzarella cheese for the crisp-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside Bikini sandwiches.
Fresh fruits are pitted and chopped, all ready to be infused with different aromatic herbs, such as mint and cloves, for the seasonal fruit salad dessert bowl, which is presented with puffs of dry ice.
In case you're wondering why Spanish food has become so popular around the world, it's because of chefs such as Alain Devahive Tolosa. He leads the kitchens of Catalunya in Singapore, and the branch in Hong Kong, which opened in April. He worked for a decade at the now-closed elBulli restaurant in Roses, Spain, and his dishes at Catalunya mix the ideas he learned from revered chef Ferran Adrià with classic Spanish cuisine.
"Basically, 60 per cent of our menu is based on traditional tapas, and 40 per cent is our vision of tapas with a modern twist. Some of the tapas don't exist in the traditional cookbooks," says Devahive Tolosa. "What I'm trying to do is to make what I'd like to find when I go to eat. I don't like boring menus.
"What puts our dishes on the modern side is the techniques. We use foams, gelatins and different temperatures to create dishes with unique textures and flavours. There are always [new techniques] that that you can have fun with," he says.
Pickles made with yuzu, which are vacuum-packed to keep out oxygen and preserve the colour and taste, are an example of the close attention paid even to the basics. Catalunya tomato tartare with potato foam will fool your palate into believing you're eating something more than a mere vegetable, while the Segovian-style roasted suckling pig is so tender, it can be cut with a plate.
The menu is almost an exact copy of the one from the original restaurant in Singapore. But within two months, the team will give it a revamp. Because tables have been so hard to book for dinner, they started opening for brunch this month with a slightly different menu.
Although Quim Marquez of Quemo in Wan Chai didn't work at elBulli, he has Adrià to thank for bringing Spanish food to international attention.
"For a long time, Spanish cuisine has been a [hidden gem]," he says. "Luckily, we have one big ambassador, who is Ferran Adrià, and he opened the door for all the Spanish chefs. Spanish food is famous because of him." Marquez, who is self-taught, has made his own name over the years with El Quim de la Boqueria in Barcelona, which has counter seating and stools, and has been going for 25 years. He says Quemo, which he runs with Aitor Olabegoya, executive chef of Migas in Beijing, added a modern twist to his native Catalan cuisine.
As suggested by the sunny-side-up egg printed on his chef's jacket, Quim says El Quim de la Boqueria's fried egg, served with ingredients such as mushrooms, squid or chorizo, is something not to be missed. He isn't afraid to experiment with different combinations and go beyond what people are used to.
"When I started doing fried egg with garlic prawns in Barcelona years ago, people thought I was crazy. It's not a typical plate. Now people love it, and we do it with many different ingredients, including caviar," he says.
Marquez is also proud of the paella, done the Valencian way. Served in a giant pan, it looks intimidating, but isn't that filling because the whole dish takes on what the Spanish call socarrat - the caramelised crust that is the hallmark of paella perfection.
There are some cultural differences that have to be overcome. Devahive Tolosa says they have to use less salt in Hong Kong and more chilli in Singapore. Cold soup such as gazpacho is something that neither Hongkongers nor Singaporeans understand.
But Jose Torres of Pico in Tsim Sha Tsui says that the love of sharing food appeals to both Chinese and Spaniards, and that this will give the cuisine its staying power. Opened earlier this month, Pico's name comes from the breadstick seen on tables in restaurants in the south of Spain, where owner and general manager Torres hails from.
Torres wants guests to experience a relaxing ambience that harks back to bars in Spain in the 1950s, and enjoy the food that Spaniards eat at home.
"[We] Spanish are not very far from Chinese; we share all the different dishes on a table. Tapas is like dim sum, the same idea. We want people to interact and try each other's dishes. We have a dish of scallops. You have one and I have one. And then the steak. You have a piece, and I have a piece. We all have a few things each," says Torres.
"I want to give the feeling that you're eating with your family around one table with different dishes, and you're eating with your fingers.
"You come here to have honest food - the way my mum cooks, the food we eat at home. Chefs are going to hate me, but any housewife in Spain can probably cook better than most chefs, including mine."
Torres, who also owns a food trading company, knows where to source good ingredients. He visits farms and wineries around Spain, but he's not afraid to use ingredients from other countries if they cost less than the comparable ingredients from his home country.
Vieiras con jamon Serrano, for instance, features scallops from Japan wrapped with Serrano ham. The chargrilled US beef tenderloin is served with a traditional sauce of Cabrales cheese, and sides that include sautéed onions, a whole bulb of baked garlic and some sea salt. Many of the dishes were taught to Torres by his mother.
"Our dishes are not fancy or sophisticated, and we have a very rustic presentation," he says. "I want to go back to authentic, basic Spanish food.
"I wanted to bring a small piece of Spain to Hong Kong. We have many people who have been abroad for many years [here]. I miss my country, my culture, my food, so I want to put together a place that I feel at home."
A taste of España
22 Ship Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2555 0722
37 Peel Street,Central, tel: 2811 2851
7/F LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2321 8681
Guardian House, 32 Oi Kwan Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2866 7900
Fofo by el Willy
20/F, 2-8 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2900 2009
Iberico & Co
18 Shelley Street, Central, tel: 2752 8811
6/F Grand Progress Building, 15-16 Lan Kwai Fong, Central, tel: 2530 1890
15 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2362 0881
Ole Spanish Restaurant
1/F Shun Ho Tower, 24-30 Ice House Street, Central, tel: 2523 8624
Empire Centre, 68 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2366 8355
5/F QRE Plaza, 202 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2836 0699
Au's Building, 15-19 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 3171 1989. Lei King Wan, 55 Tai Hong Street, Sai Wan Ho, tel: 2513 0199
Shop 2101-2, Gateway Arcade, Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2735 7787
View 62 by Paco Roncero
62/F Hopewell Centre, 183 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2574 6262