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Bravo to genuinely good tapas

The Age

Tuesday March 29, 2011

Michael Harden

14.5 Superb Spanish fare in a casual setting. AUTHENTICITY can be a fraught concept when it comes to restaurants. How authentic can a Spanish tapas bar actually be if it's not in Spain? And if people can gush about a local joint being "just like this little hole in the wall we discovered in Madrid", doesn't that mean it's more like a theme park ride with a pilfered identity than a business that's developed its own persona? What does authentic actually mean when a cuisine is so far from home?Such questions are best pondered over an Estrella de Galicia draught or two and some pulpo gallego (chewy, paprika-spiked Galician-style marinated octopus, $8.50) at Garcia & Son, a newish tapas bar just off Chapel Street near Windsor station.It's an ideal venue in which to dissect notions of authenticity, because here is a place where the tapas are tapas as you would eat them in Madrid or Barcelona, the raciones sing the same tune, the wine list (and a good percentage of the beer offerings) is all-Spanish and the warm-toned, compact room can, particularly after a few of those thirst-crushing Estrellas, have you getting a little misty about those crazy times in El Born.The best thing about Garcia & Son is how effortless it makes it all seem. There's no unseemly straining to make the place remind you of Spain; it just does with its dark-timber bar, curly bentwood chairs, bagged cream walls, highly polished concrete floor and gilt-framed mirrors scrawled with daily specials. There may be something subliminal going on with the art (abstract paintings in the colours of the Spanish flag) and there is a basket full of castanets on one end of the bar that attracts the inevitable tempranillo-fuelled hilarity as the night rolls on, but otherwise, cliches are kept at bay. In fact, Garcia & Son feels just as much like Melbourne, with its hidden location, compact dimensions and slavish devotion to old-world wine.This is not so surprising, as the pair who own the joint, John Garcia and son Nick, have good hospitality lineage that began with Nick's grandfather Pepe, who was co-owner of renowned South Yarra restaurant Maxims. Father and son are a constant presence at Garcia & Son, which is perhaps the reason why the service feels as calm and smooth as it does, maintaining its efficiency and poise even when noise rises to quite alarming levels.The feeling of being in a safe pair of hands is underlined as you watch a besuited John Garcia expertly hand-slicing the jamon Iberico de Bellota Joselito Gran Reserva pata negra ($48 for 50 grams), the primo porker on a three-strong jamon list, and the one that's on a display stand in the dining room. There's no doubt that this is some pricey (Iberian black-footed) pig but the depth of flavour from the acorn-fed, 36-month-aged, deep-pink, generously marbled meat is a rich, though appealingly delicate, joy that comes accompanied by excellent bread and good-quality butter.Bread also comes to the fore with the pan tomaquet ($6), lightly toasted bread that has been rubbed with tomato and garlic so that the crust still retains crunch and the bread itself is softened, slightly moist and flavoured with the essence of perfectly ripe tomatoes and some garlicky heat.It may be a little too early for Garcia & Son to be claiming a signature dish but the one that at present has frontrunner status is the huevos muijol ($7), another bready tapas dish that has lacy-edged fried quail eggs sitting on toast smeared with black fish roe, a joyful mouthful that contains smooth and crunchy textures, and earthy, salty-fishy flavours.Garcia & Son's empanadas ($9) might also be destined for cult status, with their excellent short, shiny pastry, flavoured with sherry so it has an appealing slightly fermented taste, stuffed with a salty mix of tuna flecked with shreds of capsicum or pimento.There are delicious veal and pork meatballs (albondigas, $9) that come in a rich, brick-red tomato sauce flavoured with smoked paprika, sherry and have a very attractive underlying chilli heat; and expertly cooked lamb chops ($5.50 each) that are crusted with a dark crumb and are accompanied by a romesco sauce that leans so far towards the tomato end of the spectrum that it comes across like a thickened, nutty gazpacho. It likes the lamb.The plancha (metal grill plate) is put to use with simply, quickly grilled fresh asparagus spears ($8), shiny from being tossed in seasoned butter, and meaty prawns ($12.50), shell on, split down the middle, lightly salted and served with a wedge of lemon, leaving the quality ingredients to speak (well) for themselves.There's also good, simple eating to be had in the raciones section that offers many of the dishes in two sizes, good both for groups who like to share and for diners who like to keep it to themselves. Slow-braised rabbit (estofado de conejo, $13.50/$26) came cooked on (and falling off) the bone, the sweet rabbit meat perhaps a little dry but saved by a thick, nicely sticky sauce flavoured with thyme and lemon and dotted with carrots and kidney beans.The sweet end of things keeps to the authentic script, although a rich, elegant sliver of chocolate tart garnished with thinly sliced orange segments ($9.50) was a clear winner over a disappointingly soupy crema Catalan ($9).Garcia & Son puts forward a great argument for being one of the more authentic tapas bars in town. But the real joy in eating here is not so much in its accurate evocation of things Spanish but in the way it covers all the bases that make this sort of casual eating out so much fun. You can't get much more authentic than that.Where 20/2 Maddock Street,WindsorPhone 9078 5007Food SpanishTypical prices Tapas $9, raciones $25, postres $9Wine list An all-Spanish list with a democratic span of prices and a good showing from current stars of Spanish winemaking.We drank 2009 Condes de Albarei Albarino, $57Owners John and Nick GarciaChefs Manuel Villegas and Jeremy StubbsValue GoodService ExcellentNoise Buzzy, rising to deafeningVegetarian Very limitedParking StreetWheelchairs NoCards AE MC V EftposHours Wed-Fri, noon-3pm; Tues-Sat, 5pm-lateScore: 19: Unacceptable. 1011: Just OK, some shortcomings. 12: Fair. 13:Getting there. 14: Recommended. 15: Good. 16: Really good. 17: Truly excellent. 18: Outstanding. 1920: Approaching perfection.

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