Barsa Taberna is but three months young and the restaurant is beginning to mature in both concept and execution. Situated in an old heritage building adjacent to the St. Lawrence market, the Barcelona-inspired tapas restaurant is anything but traditional. Owner Aras Azadian fuses his love for Barcelona (where he did his MBA) with the multicultural symmetry of the Catalonian capital and his hometown Toronto. Executive chef Michael Smith (no, not the curly haired chap from The Food Network) draws inspiration from his world travels, crafting a menu that features continental flavours presented as small, shareable plates.
We caught up with Azadian and Smith to get a sense of what's behind a romantic evening spent swirling wine in their grotto-esque back room, or a night of slamming sangria at the bar.
Conceptually, how did Barsa come to be?
AA: I fell in love with the culture and energy of Barcelona while living there during my studies. As I traveled through Spain and Portugal I began to develop an understanding and admiration for the Iberia peninsula's culture and cuisine. This inspired me to one day open a restaurant to reflect the taste and culture of the region in addition to the warmth and positivity.
As I moved back to Canada and began my career in corporate world, I noticed the parallelisms between Toronto and Barcelona, including the multiculturalism, the love of music, art and fine cuisine. That inspired the idea of Barsa Taberna, a destination where patrons can enjoy worldly tapas, diverse wines, sangrias and cocktails but most of all have an experience truly unique to Barsa.
Spanish tapas has become far more popular in Toronto as of late. How do you distinguish Barsa from others?
AA: Barsa has a culture of its own. In some ways we have de-constructed the authenticity of the Spanish culture and have evolved it to suit the Torontonian populace.
MS: Where we differentiate from other Spanish tapas places in the city is the range of complexity in our dishes. The style of the menu ranges from very simple dishes to very complex in terms of preparation and flavour profiles. A plate of thinly sliced Serrano ham and pickled beans can be eaten along with a yellowtail sashimi plate with a wild rice salad, shaved radishes and dashi jelly. Both simple in appearance but could not be further apart in terms of complexity and preparation. We successfully balance traditional Spanish style tapas with what we describe as small composed plates.
You describe a play between the cuisine of Barcelona and cultural influences in Toronto – how is this reflected in the food and more so, how can you describe the Spanish influence for those that have never been there?
MS: Tapas at Barsa come from a combination of my travels and experiences, our proximity to the St Lawrence Market and living in a vibrant and multicultural city like Toronto. Our tapas have its roots in Spain but the flavours are globally inspired as so many other cultures have tapas albeit with a different name. For example, stuffed piquillo peppers are a Spanish staple. At Barsa ours are stuffed with beef short rib that has been braised in dashi.
How have your travels influenced the menu?
AA: I attended business school at Barcelona's EADA and lived in Barcelona for nearly two years. The culture of tapas, sangrias and wine are the primary concept I brought back, in addition to the experience of enjoying and sharing rather than just dining. In the last 2 years I have had the pleasure of travelling to over 25 countries – I have worked closely with our chef and designer to input bits and pieces of these cultures into Barsa as well.
MS: I lived in Italy for a year to do some of my chef training so I have been exposed to European culture and food. I've travelled to India and have quite literally lived in every corner of this city. I've been exposed to a myriad of different cultures and foods. Where I eat my lunch on my day off has often inspired menu items and specials at Barsa.
Given your location, how does the St. Lawrence Market find its presence at Barsa?
MS: I'm in the Market at least once a day. The purveyor I visit the most is Domenic's Fish Market where they sell me local and short season products that I use in our paella or as specials. There is a spice place I frequent as well (the name escapes me) where I have found some of the most exotic spices I have ever encountered in this city.
Will the menu remain static or change?
MS: As a food nerd you will rarely find me without my nose in a cookbook or checking out a new blog on my days off (and I have 2 kids). At Barsa we are constantly adapting the menu to stay as seasonal as possible. A tribute to that is the fact that we've changed our lunch and dinner menu 3 times in the 4 being open. We definitely have our core items but the rest of the menu evolves regularly which is what I love about the food program and tapas at Barsa.
What's something that no one knows about Barsa?
AA: Barsa was built based on the vision and experience of myself and was originally planned when I was 24 years old. We opened its doors when I was 27 thanks to the support of my partners and investors and my landlord who took a huge risk on me. It is also the first restaurant myself and any of my partners have ever opened.
MS: We are combining the concept of Spanish tapas to reflect all of the other cultures around the world. You will find elements of izakaya, thali, anju or botanas all within the same restaurant
What's one thing everyone should know about Barsa?
AA: We're housed in a heritage protected building from the historic district of Old York. All of the original masonry and beams from the 1800s are still in place.
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