Tapas – A Tasty TrendSmall dishes boast big flavor as tapas tops the hottest menus.

By Lori Hutzler Eckert

The latest dish in the culinary world is all about the taste-tempting trend of serving and enjoying tapas. A centuries-old Spanish tradition of offering small portions of food that feature a big, flavorful experience, tapas recently experienced a revival in America and can be spotted at some of the Emerald Coast’s most talked-about restaurants and cocktail parties.

More than an appetizer but not quite a meal, tapas has become increasingly popular, even in our super-sized meal culture. In customary Spanish form, tapas, with its petite portions, generally is served on small eight- or 10-inch dishes and therefore has become known as “small-plate” dining.

It’s a fun way to serve and be served great food; however, this culinary craze is a long way from its somewhat mysterious origin. Common thought is that “tapas” means “to cover,” with the prominent legend holding that hundreds of years ago, barkeeps would cover full wine glasses with a flat piece of bread to protect the contents from insects. Over time, toppings were added to the bread, and tapas evolved into a custom of offering flavorful bites of food with wine.

Centuries later, tapas tops the list as the new cocktail hour must-have. Although tapas generally has a Mediterranean flair, restaurants across the country are customizing their small-plate cuisine for an in-style addition to the standard three-meal selection.

Christy Shoop, co-owner of Bianco and Cava Blue, which opened in Destin in 2004, said she credits her husband, Chef Jack Shoop, with staying ahead of food trends when their tapas menu was created: “When we opened the restaurant, tapas was just starting to hit the scene in bigger cities, so it was a way to bring something new to Destin.”

The Emerald Coast’s only authentic tapas bar, Cava Blue features a full menu of small-plate offerings. The most popular items are the tuna tartar with candied shallots and crostinis, fish and chips, and crispy oysters served with a sweet garlic sauce. Other favorites include cheese fondue with handcrafted artisan breads, and summer vegetables and cresenza ravioli with sweet corn and crab sauce.


Mixing It Up

Tapas often is found in upscale bars, where pairing it with fruity sangrias, wines and martinis has elevated the basic happy hour to a social event. On almost any night on the Emerald Coast, groups of people can be found gathered around the intimate cocktail tables at Cava Blue, enjoying not just the taste of tapas, but the experience as well.

“The portions aren’t huge, and it’s meant to be that way,” Shoop said. “You can mix things up and everyone can taste lots of things.”

Tapas also has become a main ingredient for after-work winding down and pre-party socializing at Destin Commons newest restaurant, The Grape, which opened in June. This contemporary wine bar features a small-plate menu that is separate from its entrée and appetizer listing.

A selection of wines can be sipped along with a variety of tapas, including cambozola, prosciutto and fig pita pizza, roasted beef tenderloin quesadillas, and chicken and Portobello quiche.

“Our selections are a little larger than traditional tapas, and our portion size allows patrons to order different foods as they work their way through our amazing selection of wines,” said Doug Jester, managing partner of The Grape.

“Menu selections focus on taste, balance and depth of favor,” Jester added. “Fresh ingredients, marinades and simple cooking procedures help our small-plate gourmet bring out the flavors of the wine it complements, rather than competing with the wine.”


Get the Party Started

The Grape even offers small-plate selections to go, which makes entertaining with tapas at home easy and fun. However, creating one’s own tapas fare for an in-home party simply requires a dash of creativity mixed with a few good friends.

Savory traditional Mediterranean-inspired foods, which can easily be found in the Publix grocery store deli section, are a good basis for a tapas party. Marinated olives and cheeses, hummus with warm pita bread slices, and couscous served on romaine leaf “spoons” allow party guest to enjoy the flavorful foods in a setting that is less formal than a sit-down dinner party.

Restaurants usually feature a broad variety of dishes; however, a good rule for in-home entertaining with tapas is to offer three to four selections per course, with a half-cup serving, or three to four pieces per guest.

Tapas generally is served with a variety of cocktails so, in keeping with tradition, stock your bar with a red and white wine and offer a signature drink for the evening – possibly something with a citrus base to balance the bold food flavors. Also include a “mocktail,” an alcohol-free drink, or sparkling fruit juice as an alternative, especially for guests who will be driving.

And don’t forget dessert, a bit of a modern twist on the tapas fete. Offer petite cream-stuffed crepes, tablespoon-sized servings of tart and sweet sorbets, or a warm and rich chocolate fondue with seasonal fruits, along with coffee and after-dinner liquors, for a sweet ending to a fun and fabulous evening.  – Chris Struck contributed to this article.