Epiphany offers a local re-creation of Spanish tapas

February 27, 2013

Whether grabbing a drink with friends or spending a romantic evening over a four-course meal, Epiphany Café features a range of dishes for small and large appetites. A rarity in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Epiphany offers a variety of small plates, similar to tapas, which are common in Spanish culture.

Traditionally tapas are often accompanied by bread as a way to prevent bugs from crawling into one’s drink, said Haley Flanagan, a University of Alabama student who studied in Spain.

“At first I did not believe this, and then they gave us bread on top of our glasses when we got tapas and I knew it was true,” she said.

The main types of tapas differ from region to region in Spain, Flanagan said. However, some common ingredients, like ham and potatoes, may be found in tapas around the country.

But, diners should not expect chorizo and Iberian ham to be the recurring theme of Epiphany’s menu. Instead, Executive Chef Tres Jackson employs his own influences to recreate an Americanized version of tapas.

“We are very similar in that we are very ingredient driven and [Spanish] tapas are also very ingredient driven,” Jackson said during a tapas-making workshop with Alpine Living reporters in February.

One of the main differences in the tapas that Jackson and his team prepare as opposed to those served in Spanish restaurants is the ingredients that are available to Spanish chefs. Because of the regional differences, those ingredients cannot be purchased locally and are too expensive if ordered.

“I think a big similarity [between tapas in Tuscaloosa and those found in Spain] is the freshness of ingredients, though,” said Aimee Grisham, a University of Alabama student who has studied in Spain in the past. “Since each region has specialized dishes, they try to use what they can get their hands on.”

Alpine Living Staff

Alpine Living Staff

As part of the farm-to-table movement, Epiphany selects locally grown and raised products from regional farms when possible. Similarly, Spanish tapas incorporate local seafood, as much of Spain is near the coast, Grisham said.

“If you go to the seaside restaurants in the morning, you can watch the waiters go diving for crabs or other fish,” she said.

Because tapas in Spain and at Epiphany rely on seasonal ingredients, the menu may change depending on the time of year. For Epiphany this means changing the menu, on average, two to three times a week, but sometimes four, Jackson said.

“Making the menu is a building process,” he said. “You pick up things over time.”

Though the tapas menu at Epiphany does not reflect a Spanish influence, Jackson used his experience with similar ingredients to create traditional dishes for Alpine Living staff. He then prepared some of the café’s takes on a tapas menu. Though the flavors may differ, the concept of tapas remains.

“It’s still that kind of dining,” he said. “We just try to be innovative. Unless you’re trying to get better, you might as well quit.”

Jackson began with patatas bravas, one of the most frequently served tapas in Spain. His twist on the traditional potato dish included a tomato and bacon jam and spicy aioli. The fried potatoes combined with the spicy flavor of the aioli and the smokiness of the bacon to create an addictive appetizer.

Next, were contrasting dishes featuring the infamous brussel sprout, which Jackson described as being highly underrated. Because the dishes were distinctly made, they portrayed a good example of the difference in traditional Spanish and their own tapas, he said.

The Spanish-style dish featured sautéed Brussels with a rutabaga puree, walnuts, golden raisins, a Spanish olive oil and Epiphany’s lemon vinaigrette. This dish, unanimously less popular among Alpine Living staff, contrasted greatly with Epiphany’s fried brussel sprout dish. Jackson combined the fried brussels with locally purchased Katie Farms pickled watermelon rind, a soy caramel, Snows Bend watermelon radish and their own kim chi – a fermented, Asian-inspired cabbage.

As staff members discovered, preconceived notions about particular ingredients, good or bad, should be ignored when tasting tapas. The same is true of Spanish tapas, Flanagan said.

“Definitely explore different tapas places and try all different types,” she said. “Do not ask what something is until after you eat it because you may love fried blood but you would never have known!”

To complete the survey of tapas, Jackson prepared two plates that can be found on the restaurant’s menu, depending on availability. The first, a cauliflower soufflé, is currently being served at Epiphany and the other, a savory organic duck satay, has been featured on the menu previously.

The cauliflower soufflé, which combines a cheddar sauce and wild mushrooms, is topped with a soft egg and local chervil. This dish takes the chefs a full 24 hours to prepare; the soufflé must sit overnight to set up and be the perfect consistency. The smooth and creamy tastes of the soufflé and cheese sauce along with the fresh taste of the wild mushrooms is evidence that Epiphany’s farm-to-plate ideology is how a dining experience should be, in this reporter’s opinion.

Ideal for sharing with a group of friends, the organic duck satay is a culmination of Asian influences including ginger and chili marinade, homemade peanut sauce, kim chi and orange. The succulent duck and tang of the spices complemented each other faultlessly.

Epiphany, the only Tuscaloosa restaurant serving tapas, may be considered a rare gem in the community. Quality ingredients delivered weekly provide a healthy and trustworthy dining experience. Though the ingredients cost more, they have a much better shelf life, Jackson said.

“It’s just the way it should be.”