Espana, Vancouver.

May 31, 2013 (several more recent dates below)

A server at Nook, one of our West End favorites, recommended this little place which turned out to be about a block and a half from our Vancouver home. What a find! Everybody knows new little restaurants have the approximate survival rate of hatching salmon eggs, but I sure hope nothing goes wrong with this place. It deserves to make it down the river, avoid being eaten by predators, and fight its way back.

It’s a small room with a single row of tables siding on the bar.  We sat at the front window, which was a fabulous late-spring-evening show, tattooed teenagers, 60-ish tourists, a wonderful four-year-old waiting for the bus with mum, dozens of couples on their way.  We ordered a bottle of Muga Rioja with which we are familiar and we weren’t disappointed.

A minor quibble was our being left to make up our minds from among the lovely menu items, only to be confronted with the even more lovely specials.  “Toasts” as tapas are a specialty, and they come it many varieties.  We had chorizo, and an absolutely heartbreaking morel item served over a soft poached egg on wonderful toast, with a mushroom-stock-wine reduction (but not too reduced) that was the best thing that evening but which left us wanting to keep coming back and trying everything.  Our main was a calamari salad with mint perfectly seasoned and dressed.

If you are wandering the West End and get hungry don’t miss it. We are just starting to find out about its scope but there has to be somebody in the kitchen who knows and loves what they are doing. Hope they stick around. Food 8.6/service 7.2/ambience (either you love it or you hate it) /overall value 8.5.

June 2014

We’ve been back here twice now and tonight I almost caught myself thinking, “Why can’t I just live here?” The chef is named Neil (the server didn’t know his surname) but whoever he is he knows somehow (I imagine instinctively) how to make wonderful flavour. This little place is a genuine gem.

First, you do have to arrive early. We got there at about 5:15 on a Monday and so had our choice of seats, and if you don’t want to be drowned in the dark nightmare of noise that destroys the pleasure in even the best little restaurants, plus enjoy the traffic on Denman Street, you have to get one of the two sets of seats at the bar looking out the front window.

The specials were exquisite. We started with a cup of crispy chickpeas deep-fried in sweet  paprika and mint in an unidentifiable fat. Next came a salmon tartare done also with mint, chili, lemon, and yogurt, with accompanying olive oil toasts, which was absolutely gorgeous and unassuming. Then an incredible sherry braised beef served on damp toasts with a cheese and soft fried egg on top.  Just exquisitely satisfying. Also a deep-fried zucchini flower stuffed with potato and cheese,  and our favourite morcilla topped with another fried egg.

For $50 we had a 2005 Rioja that I would have paid $50 for retail, but so far haven’t been able to track down.  Overall price $133 for two with a 20% tip.

Updated scores:  food 9.3, service 8.3, ambience 8.1 (if you sit in the front window. probably more like 7.0 in the general restaurant), value 8.9.  This is one of the real hotspots in the city in our opinion. Don’t miss it.

May 2015.

We seem to return once a year, and it’s not often enough. Again I insist: you must sit in the front window or at the few seats at the end of the bar if you don’t want to be destroyed by shrieking and clatter.

But once set up, what a delight! The menu varies, and there are specials. Green pea humuos with bits of goat cheese amuses in a perfect tiny baked bread. Sardines and tomatoes on toast crisp and fabulously varied in flavor and consistency follow. There is a piece of cured pork at the back of the restaurant and the IBERICO CHORIZO DE BELLOTA which is a bunch of slices of that is about as heavenly of prosciutto as you could find. Roasted beets were good but not being a vegetarian I left more behind for Robin than I ate.

Too bad, the online menu isn’t the current one. I remember an asparagus with Asian-spiced chorizo on top, and then one of their perfect-egg-topped items which I can’t exactly recall. Both delicious and plenty of flavor contrast.

Same $50 rioja: fabulous bargain.

I discover the exec chef is an anglo guy, Neil Taylor. He has started something a few blocks away called Fat Badger, which I gather is pub food. It’s in the old Gavroche on Alberni Street, sadly missed after being one of our favourite traditional French experiences since a premarital date there, in I think, about 1978. Have to give the new proprietor a try.

The above scores are about right. Espana remains very near the top of my list around here.

July 2017

Strangely, we have had a couple of minor disappointments at this place since the last post, but this dinner was royally redemptive. Five tapas, again new and original and all fully satisfying with the trademark sour predominance of this very capable chef. This evening the passing traffic in front of our favourite window seat was a festive delight. Our server was maybe a bit on the banal side, but did her job competently.

A cucumber salad was enriched with a minty green purée that had the consistency of mashed avocado but was busy skewering the mint flavour against the crisp cucumber. Gently-battered deep-fried squid way outdistanced anything going by the name calamari, sporting an accompaniment of wilted lambs lettuce and a seductive sour dressing.

We’ve had some beautifully-done octopus in southern Italy recently, and a warm potato octopus salad stood up pretty well to that elite competition. I think it was a paprika or similar seasoning that enhanced the potatoes and pulled them together in flavour with the octopus without eclipsing either of them. Finally there was a lamb duo, deliciously rare tender leg meat slices along with a homemade merguez with pickled red onion and yogurt. Wonderfully satisfying. All washed down with the perennial tempranillo.

$175 with the tip. Espana is back on top for us. Food 9.4, service 8.2, ambience 9.2 (if you sit at the front window), value 9.0 (for food this good), peace and quiet acceptable, again as long as you are out of the fray of the main room.

October 2021

I haven’t been back to this place more than a couple of times, but here I am stuck in Vancouver back from a moose hunt, waiting for Robin to return from a nice long visit with Sal and Sophie. I’m closeted up in a tiny corner room at the Sylvia (the price not much more than very spare motel rooms in the interior: Merritt and Hope) and decided to give our old friend a try.

You don’t get in without the real electronic proof of double immunization. I couldn’t find mine and presented a paper card which the girl said was no longer acceptable, then fortunately found the “real” electronic version and successfully begged for my favourite seat at the window. There was setting sun in my face for the first half of dinner but I put on my Ezra Pound dark glasses and could imagine an abstract humanity whipping across in front of me.

Four tapas: the daily special tortilla – a cold savoury pie of potatoes, peas, and onions – kept me from making my usual request for extra salt. Roasted beets were balsamic-vinegar sour almost to the point where I who love sour things was put off, but a layer of crème fraîche underneath saved it as I took big bites, along with some onions and other unidentified vegetables. Cubes of seared pork belly chicaronnes were sweetened with honey, crisp and fatty in layers, and then white anchovies on toast were terrifically sour and maybe the only minor disappointment of this little feast. Two glasses of Muga rioja washed it down.

I love this chef’s courage in the face of everybody thinking things are too sour. They are not. This was another quirky but very satisfying dinner at this little restaurant that is gradually becoming a cult survivor.

If you have dinner there, take a walk about a block north to D’oro Gelato e Caffe, a little Italian dessertery that is in a class strangely out of place along this rowdy Denman strip. I inhaled its chocolate dolce de leche cheesecake slice and got finished off with the dessert heaven that Espana deserves. A 10 minute walk along the beach in the chilly October sunset made me think of when we lived in an apartment up above that international-class malecon. The the sunset chatter of seaside-seated girls’ romantic invitation and men’s responses felt like spring (in this case fall) birdies’ sweetness on top of a fat goose satisfaction. Nice way to finish a nice dinner.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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