The Sardine Can
Every single time we stopped by the Sardine Can, it was always running at maximum capacity with hungry diners pacing around the front door, praying there would be an open seat soon (doesn't matter where). The night I hit up this Gastown gem with my friend S was no different. Luckily, we didn't wait around too long and got 2 cozy spots at the bar. Created by the same folks behind Pied a Terre and La Buca, the name "Sardine Can" was quite fitting, as we did feel
a little bit crammed in the modest, yet crowded space.
I was quite intrigued with how simple and minimal their kitchen was. And much more intrigued by how fast the chef was able to fly out those orders, keeping consistency with excellent quality control. As we both were not too familiar with Spanish tapas, S and I weren't quite sure what we should order and so we only order 3 dishes like 2 old shy introverts who didn't go outside that often. Now that I looked back, we should have ordered at least 2 more dishes; smoked ham wrapped prune stuffed with Mahon cheese , and slow cooked pork cheeks. What were we thinking?
The smoked sardine on toast was probably what they are known for. For only $5, I thought the portion was reasonable and the taste made this a steal and a half. When you think 'sardine', some of you (me included) might think of small oily canned fish served whole. However, the smoked sardine was a smooth spread, dressed with lemon juice, perhaps capers. It was not fishy at all. Instead, it was salty, tangy, refreshing on crisp toasted baguette. A wonderful dish that left me wanting more.
We also ordered steamed clams with chorizo sausage and mushrooms in sherry cream sauce. I enjoyed the clams. They were meaty and not all shrivelled up. The tomato sauce had just the right acidity and the chorizo sausage had just the right spice and smokiness. I ended up filling my belly scraping up sauce with sourdough bread. Lastly, the mushrooms were cooked well enough that the texture was tender, but still firm and not soggy. The sherry cream sauce was fantastic, but I wish they had baked it with cheese. Just eating a big bowl of mushrooms got mundane after a while.
Despite being constantly insanely busy, service was prompt and our food never took too long to arrive. However, I did not feel like the ambience was somewhere I could sit down, be comfortable and enjoy my meal for very long. Everything there felt so hectic and so we decided to venture out elsewhere. S and I did regret not staying to try the chocolate terrine on toast.
The second Spanish tapa restaurant the girls and I hit up recently was Espana on Denman. The atmosphere at Espana was warm and inviting. It was dimly lit and the bar area showcased their wine collection. Walk into Espana after 7 pm and you will find yourself in the same predicament as at the Sardine Can. And they don't take reservation here either.
B and I tried out red wine concoctions; mixed with lemonade, and one with cola ($6 each). The first tasted like sangria, the latter just tasted like coke. It was worth a try.
P described her wine to be smooth, light, easy to drink and doesn't overpower the food.
Iberian ham croquettes arrived with a wedge of lemon. After tasting it, the rest of them certainly did not require any sauces. The croquettes were exactly how they were meant to be; crispy batter, smooth, creamy and well seasoned inside. We got a taste of the ham in small bits, not huge chunks.
The second dish that arrived was "OMG" good. It blew us away. The 2 pieces of 'toasts' arrived looking like slices of cake. The thick bread was a spongy with crispy edge, topped with a thick layer of pate of chicken liver infused with anchovy and sherry. The flavour was pretty much a party in my mouth. As a bonus, the acidity of the balsamic vinegar cut through the pate making the party with a twist that could go on all night. It was sooooooo good.
If there's one dish we never go without ordering, it's crispy pork belly. Check out the marbled layer. The skin was thick and, most importantly, crispy. The meat was tender and came apart easily, the fat just made the world go round. Despite being served with my nemesis, white bean, they managed to get me to eat it too. Props go to the supporting romesco sauce topping on the crispy pork and pesto mixed in the white bean.
The octopus salad was on the special that night. When it arrived, we had to double check with our server, "I think we ordered octopus salad". "This is it,"she replied, "the octopus is there....there and there." It was so dark, everything looked the same, and so we couldn't tell what was what on the plate. It was a warm salad, a bit too salty in my opinion, although I really liked the chorizo on this dish. It was slightly crispy with full-flavour. The octopus was surprisingly tender, chewy but not rubbery. The arugula tossed in lemon juice and olive oil livened everything up. The fingerling potatoes were crispy and made good fillers.
The house-made morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) with fried egg and mushrooms was a special dish. It would easily be an excellent brunch dish also. It's got all the proteins and iron one would need to face a hard day. The sausage was savoury with a crumbly texture, and swimming in a light gravy-like sauce.
We actually debated for a long time whether or not to order the paella. Although we were already full, I knew in my heart if I didn't order it, I'd spend the rest of my life wondering "what if?". There's certainly no room for that! Actually, what pushed me was the key ingredient, squid ink. It always tastes so good in pasta, and even bread, but I had never tried with paella before. For $32, the paella arrived in a large pan, black as night. The flavour of the rice was amazing, full of flavour, zesty from lemon juice and probably hundreds of capers mixed in with the rice. Despite the octopus being done well, tender and not rubbery, we all wished there was more seafood or more topping on the rice. The ratio just didn't seem to match.
We were full to the brim, yet this time, we all called for desserts. And, we were glad we did. The catalan cream custard arrived in a ramekin. Once we dug in, it pretty much revealed itself to be a creme brulee. The burnt sugar was so thick and crispy and I love the taste of burnt sugar so much. The custard cream was light, fluffy and creamy. It was worth the weight gain.
Again, speaking of weight gain, I don't care if I end up doubling in size from eating this dessert everyday. Initially, we thought the trifle was 'too big'. After digging in, pfft...there was no such thing. The cake was saturated with sherry and layered with tangy blood oranges, pomegranate, and fluffy whipped cream. I learned a lesson tonight. I shall always drench cakes with sherry before I eat it. It was too good. Or, maybe I just love the taste of alcohol too much.