She’s way out of my league and I know it. I need an angle, a way to bluff her and sustain the illusion that I’m somehow interesting for an entire evening. With the hustle of Fortitude Valley at our backs, we trundle down Brunswick Street into New Farm and find “P!ntxo Spanish Taperia & Tapas Train,” nestled innocuously between an accounting firm and a “Design Emporium”. Pintxos is the most famous of Basque cuisine, tapas that’s been left a little longer in the fryer, more octopus and potato than jamon and chorizo. It’s a god-send, or so I think – momentarily I revert to the social province of men who think religiously pointing out how intelligent and worldly they are impresses the fairer sex. Here, a condescending tone is de rigueur. Naturally, my time in the Basque country of north-eastern Spain – a green, mildly volatile, rain soaked region with independence on its mind – will allow a decent chance to impress. I’ve entered the realm of the ‘travel wanker’.
The lights are dimmed, the music slow and soft. Conversation ripples quietly around the room, the back wall dominated by the sentinel silhouette of the Osbourne bull, the national symbol of Spain. Antique posters advertise la semana santa festival in sun-soaked Seville and flamenco in Granada – the restaurant is a full-on celebration of Spanish culture. But this is a Basque restaurant – where are the green, white and red Basque flags? Where’s that curious Basque language? This all feels slightly ignorant, and given the nationalist Basque’s penchant for explosives, P!ntxos would do well with a comprehensive insurance policy lest an ETA militant stroll in, expecting a reminder of his faraway home.
The Tapas Train, a massive banquet table shared with several groups of young punters, with gambas y jamon (prawns with cured Spanish ham) and albondigas (beef meatballs in “rustic” tomato sauce) cruising by is a novel idea. The concept is the same as a sushi train – you pick your plate, at around $3-5 a pop, as it motors by and eat as much as you can muster. But things are going well with my companion and we move to the more secluded environs of the restaurant proper. The tables for two seem awkwardly oblong, but the excess space between us is quickly filled with croquetas (deep fried mashed potato with Dijon sauce), aceitunas fritas (fried olives stuffed with garlic), tortillas de verduras (omelete laced together with thick helpings of green vegetables) and setas al ajillo (fried mushrooms stuffed with garlic). Vegetarians are well-catered for, even embraced here. The olives explode with the first bite and the result is sharp, bitter with a garlicky punch. One on its own is an indulgence, the centrepiece of a meal. A whole plate between two feels like real privilege. The tortillas soothe the palate, fluffy and crumbling in your mouth. The mushrooms are voluptuous, pregnant with garlic and spices, and they too are an intense, almost challenging experience. Super-sweet peach sangria offsets this assault of the savory, despite tasting more like cordial than Spanish wine.
Our waiter Adam – affable and adding yet another ingredient to the cultural mix with his Floridian accent – recommends the churros for dessert and he’s bang on. A sweet, soft and flaky filling floods the mouth once you’ve penetrated the crunchy exterior. They remind my companion of childhood amusement parks, and savouring every morsel of the forbiddingly expensive doughnuts sold there. She and her friends spent most of their allowances on those pastries, leaving little left for rides – today these churros are still a luxury.
She slumps, groans, pushes her plate away with finality, and an understanding of her Montreal French isn’t necessary to know she’s satisfied. She cocks an eyebrow at me and switches to our common language, her English flowered with Québécois. “But I am easily impressed, and for you, you’re not so sure?”
She’s right. It’s the cheesy Spanish music, the travel guides carefully littered on the shelves and, possibly the biggest insult of all, the name “P!ntxo” emblazoned across that unmistakable, evocative silhouette of the Osbourne Bull. This is by no means a criticism of Spanish culture, nor an endorsement of Basque separatism, but it demonstrates extraordinary naivety and insensitivity to assume Spanish and Basque culture are one and the same. The Basque region, regardless of international borders, is not Spain. And the food at P!ntxos suffers as a result. Not by any virtue of its own – my companion’s reaction and comments overheard from surrounding tables will attest to that. It just feels all wrong because of this ridiculous misunderstanding, akin to labelling felafel an Israeli dish in a restaurant full of Palestinians.
Having chosen the ‘travel wanker’s’ path, I’m obliged to regurgitate this impressive wad of information all over my companion. With alarm I notice a subtle roll of the eyes, the flatness in her “How interesting.” Only the most self absorbed wankers are immune to these kinds of signals, and with the arrival of more peach sangria ($15 per half litre) I change tack and try to pull her back from the brink of open hostility.
The bill lies in the farthest extremities of ‘reasonable’ (around $75 for a litre of sangria, four pintxos and churros for dessert) but we’re satisfied. “I’ll definitely be back,” my companion says. “Really, I couldn’t think of a better meal.” There’s no doubt that the food is good, and you will be satisfied by P!ntxos pintxos. But that ignorance of Basque culture threatens to sour the experience for those with even a vague knowledge of Iberian history and topple the unsuspecting, out of his league ‘travel wanker’ from his perch in a blaze of self-righteousness. But perhaps P!ntxos belongs in adolescent, isolated, insulated Brisbane. The punters will keep coming, keep gushing about this “authentic Spanish tapas place” they found down on Brunswick Street. And at the end of the day, aren’t we all just looking for a decent dinner?