• Head chef Matt McConnell on cooking Spanish. (Bar Lourinha)
A decade on, Matt McConnell riffs on the secrets to Spanish success and why ‘tapas’ shouldn’t be a dirty word.
By
Siobhan Hegarty

5 Jun 2017 - 10:24 AM  UPDATED 5 Jun 2017 - 12:24 PM

If Matt McConnell’s name sounds familiar, chances are it’s because you’ve eaten at – or heard of – one of the restaurants he or brothers Andrew and Sean own and run. Born and bred in eastern Melbourne, the brothers are behind some of the country’s most deservedly hyped restaurants, including Cutler & Co and SuperNormal (Andrew), and Canberra’s Mocan & Green Grout and Monster Kitchen (Sean). 

Matt’s culinary contribution carries a decidedly Iberian feel. As the chef-owner of Melbourne’s Bar Lourinhã, you’ll find him chatting to farmers, butchers and importers by day, and serving up smoky cheese croqueta – the “benchmark” of good tapas – or cured pork cheeks by night. An aficionado of Spanish cuisine and culture, the seeds for Bar Lourinhã were sewn in 1997 on trip to Barcelona. 

“It was a life changing experience,” Matt says of his first trip to the Catalonian capital with wife Jo Gamvros. “We don’t speak Spanish, but we were walking into bars and being treated with great respect. A welcoming respect that is sometimes missing in service, we find, in Melbourne.”

“We wanted to bring a slice of that back because it was really enjoyable and we were never made to feel like a stranger or outsider. It really typifies a lot of Spanish culture – it’s convivial, warm, giving, and that flows over into the flavours as well.” 

Casting one’s eyes over Bar Lourinhã’s menu, it’s easy to spot the edible exemplification of that generous and genuine hospitality. Divided into ‘tapas’ and ‘raciones’ (larger dishes designed to share), classic dishes such as pig’s head, bomba rice or cuttlefish ink cocido (stew) are given a restaurant edge. Amid the cured meats, vintage manchego and enticing seafood, homely dishes like garbanzos espinacas, spiced chickpeas and spinach, also play an important role.

“It’s an iconic dish of Bar Lourinhã,” Matt says proudly of this menu-stayer – chickpeas caramelised in a heady sofrito of Moorish spices. “I pieced it together in Seville in like 45 degrees [heat] but I just had to get it right.”

“It’s vegetarian but I’d have more people say to me ‘Those chickpeas changed my life’ than any other dish.”

Interestingly and slightly confusingly, Lourinhã actually takes its name from a municipality in Portugal.

“One of the reasons we chose ‘Lourinhã’ is we did go to that town,” Matt explains. “What I loved most is that it wasn’t definitively Portuguese or Spanish [cuisine wise], so gave us a bit more freedom on the creative side of food.” 

“But having said that, the style of how we serve food and how you eat the food is exactly how you’d do in Spain.”

Indeed, Bar Lourinhã specialises in one of Spain’s most famous exports: tapas. A speciality, Matt says, that’s been unfairly treated in Australia.

“Tapas became a dirty word for while, so we didn’t want to be called a tapas bar,” he expands, pointing to the misappropriation of tapas by non-Spanish restaurants. “We were conscious of the connotations of tapas. We believed in it, but we didn’t want to be associated with something that was a little bit bastardised [in Australia].”

Exxy prices have been another criticism of tapas in  Australia, and while the snacks are rarely free in Spain, they are accessible to all. Matt says Granada, a city in Spain’s southern Andalucia region, is one of the few places that still offers tapas gratis.

“The first time I  went there and ordered drinks, all of a sudden food just appeared,” he recalls. “My instant reaction, coming from outside culture, was ‘I’m going to get stung with a big bill’.”

Luckily, that wasn’t the case.

“In Spain, drinking goes absolutely hand-in-hand with eating,” Matt muses on the differences between Australian and Mediterranean cultures. “It’s never just about getting drunk, it’s about sitting down getting  drunk and getting a fully belly at the same time.”

“It’s a wonderful thing [that’s] missing in bar culture in Australia.”

Thankfully with its monastrell and manchego, tempranillo and tapas, Matt McConnell’s Bar Lourinhã brings a slice of Barcelona to our Aussie shores.

 

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds?  It's Spanish week on The Chefs' Line, 6pm weeknights on SBS. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.

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