The first time I heard about tapas, a friend had just returned from Spain. He spoke for weeks about these extraordinary small plates that he’d experienced, as he dined across Spain in its restaurants and bars. He’d enjoyed the experience immensely, and described sampling tiny mouthfuls of smoked octopus, chicken covered in garlic and chiles and shrimp paella, each dish served in bite-sized proportions atop tiny plates. The first thing I thought then was, how would one get enough to eat? Yet today, after decades of sampling the “small plates” now so prevalent in our food culture, I’m a convert to the concept. I don’t think I’ve ordered a main course intended for just myself in over a decade. No meal is complete without shared plates.
The tradition of tapas itself hails from a time between the middle ages and modern Europe, when bad roads and difficult travels forced weary travelers to rest often. Hungry and exhausted, they’d find succor at many a roadside inn. The innkeepers of these establishments, often were unable to read or write, and so had no menus to offer their patrons. Wanting to be as hospitable as possible, they would offer their guests a sample of the dishes available, on a “tapa” (Spanish for pot cover), instead. The first tasting menu, if you will, and thus, tapas were born.
Chefs Emily Sarlatte and Sergio Monleón have partnered to bring their version of tapas to Berkeley, opening the brick and mortar version of their
wildly popular food truck “Ñora Cocina Española” in mid-October. The restaurant interior harkens back to that tradition of bar-hopping and bites that is uniquely Spanish. The overall effect is welcoming, and the effort itself clearly a collaboration, as the large expressive and colorful paintings of what appear to be colorful arches adorning the walls, are the product of Chef Sarlatte’s artist father.
La Marcha offers more than sustenance, it’s food reflecting the great pride in the art of combining flavor and providing a variety of tastes, that is at the heart of shared dining. It is clear that Chefs Monleón and Sarlatte understand that a well-prepared dish can have the power to envelop your senses, warming the heart like a grandmother’s hug. The idea that hungry travelers will cross their threshold and find not simply a meal, but a dining experience worthy of a memory, seems to be the thrust of their undertaking here in Berkeley.
At the recent soft-opening gala, I was able to sample many of their food offerings. There were thoughtful little amuse bouche of anchovy and peppers
to whet the palate, the tart acid of the peppers a lovely foil for the oily fish. The Albóndigas (wild boar meatballs) were juicy and plump, lightly acidic from the tomato cream sauce, and melted in the mouth, leaving a lingering blend of meat and cheese caressing the tastebuds. The bite-sized morsels of Tortilla de Patatas, a creamy egg and potato concoction that reminded me of my grandfather’s fritatta (no small compliment) were delicious. But the house special, Paella, was definitely the show stopper everyone came to taste, and it was splendid, chock full of seafood and well-developed flavors.
There was such pride in the house, both chefs clearly possessing a deep passion for the art of feeding people. It means something to them. The foods they serve brighten up a plate with the natural resonance on the tongue that is the joy found when food comes from the heart. The menu reflects that passion. Dish after dish offering the tang of tomato, fatty fish, well seasoned proteins, crafted together with peppers, and cheeses, each conjured nicely to be presented to their diners in the classic style that is “tapas.” It makes perfect sense. I’m heading back to have a full meal. I’ll bring some friends and make a memory. How about you?
La Marcha Tapas Bar
2026 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702
b/t University Ave & Addison St
Phone: (510) 269-7374