Tapping up this new tapas spot…

We’ve commented in the past on the poetic synergy between Spanish and Arabian food, not least because of shared threads of heritage. As early as the eighth century, Arab settlers have occupied significant swathes of the Iberian mainland, with influences on language, place names, architecture and food — still observable today.

And, when it comes to food — sharing food in particular — what is tapas if not mezze with a sultry Spanish accent? It’s this level of sympathetic synergy that makes the fact that there really aren’t that many authentic Spanish restaurants in Abu Dhabi, feel all the more anomalous.

Enter Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers’ new casa of continental cuisine, José by Pizarro — a bijoux, 46-seat tapas bar and restaurant. It’s a concept from, as the name provides the most explicit sort of spoiler for, international cheffing icon José Pizarro — tapas tzar and poster boy for the globalisation of Iberian gastronomy.

In terms of interior space, the warmly-lit restau-bar feels somewhere between an Osakan karaoke joint and a Ramblas bodega. One stretch of terracota wall features framed black and white Pizarro family photos, and demonstrates the chef’s belief in the idea that restaurants work best when they connect with people on a personal level: “I think kitchens and restaurants are about memories” he told us when we visited ahead of the opening, “life is about memories”.

It’s currently open between 5pm and 11.30pm for Tuesday to Sunday seatings, and because its still ostensibly in the final soft opening throes, there aren’t many promotions to distract you from the magma-hot core of the a la carte experience. We’re here for an obscenely early dinner, and making the best sort of memories.

Heading up the kitchen whilst Chef José is off campus, is Carlos Ortiz — he’s holding court on menu recommendations with the rare ice cool charisma that is only seen in the most storied chefs. From the sharing small plates, Ortiz insists we take the signature Cantabrian anchovies on brioche (Dhs33); along with a tortilla (Dhs50) — that’s the Spanish omelette variety, not the Mexican flat bread; and spinach and manchego cheese croquetas (Dhs50). From the sharing mains gallery, we’ve elected a serving of the arroz meloso de carabinero (Dhs325) — a deep sea red prawn with rice.

José by Pizarro anchovies are missionaries for the salty fish dish providing, we’re told, a clinic for even the most stubborn anchovy cynic. And it’s true that what we have here is incomparable to the variety that are often picked and flicked off the top of pizzas. These fillets are of pure bred Atlantic-fringe pedigree, packed in premium oil and full of complex meaty, almost game-tinged flavour, precision framed by the sweet brioche and smoky butter cradle.

The croquetas are also essential selections, a tapas table staple that in this Pizarro world are given a velvety fondant complexion that makes them hot contenders for most “excuse me ma’am, could we get another plate of these please” orders. Order the tortilla soft, it’s where you get the fullest and we’d argue most authentic flavour.

We end our evening with (we’re sacrificing accuracy for brevity here) prawn paella. It’s a creamy, and therefore deceptively rich and filling plate — it feels regal and indulgent, the carabinero prawn — a prized deep sea treasure offers all sorts of pleasure triggers for those appreciative of outstanding seafood. It’s beyond negative criticism, but for a raucous, rustic emotionally-charged plate of the people — we’d recommend the chicken paella (Dhs315), (basically a Spanish mandhi — see, entwined) we tried on our last visit. It may very well be the best of its sort in the UAE.

Verdict: The reign of this Spanish restaurant isn’t just on the mains, it offers top tier tapas too.

Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers, Corniche, Tue to Sun 5pm to 11.30pm. @josebypizarro

Images: Provided