After his high–profile role as Electra House’s Executive Chef, this new venture for Spanish chef Alfonso Ales in The Little Soho is something more personal.
The Spanish-born chef says The Little Soho is similar to a neighbourhood tapas bar that you would find in Spain. “It’s small, intimate and casual,” Ales says. “You can pop in and grab tapas and a drink or stay the whole night. It’s up to you. That’s what I wanted to do because I thought the concept of tapas in Australia was a bit messy.”
Ales didn’t want to create a cliché of a Spanish restaurant with the Flinders Street small bar and eatery.
“I wanted to do a place that when a Spanish person comes here would think, ‘Oh this is a Spanish restaurant’.”
Ales, who learnt his craft in Michelin Star restaurants in Spain (including El Bulli), France and Germany, came to Australia to work at hatted restaurants including Bilson’s and Jonah’s. After Sydney got too hectic, Ales and his family decided to move to Adelaide. He was named Executive Chef of Electra House, which included their restaurant Olea. The modern Greek restaurant was replaced by the Asian fusion Level One after Ales left the big-budget King William Street project.
“I didn’t come to Adelaide for a job [at Electra House],” he says. “I came to Adelaide because we wanted to settle here. I wanted to start doing tapas bars. This idea, if this concept takes off, is something I would like to reproduce somewhere else, to bring some of that Spanish culture, so people can be familiar with Spanish cuisine. We have Italian restaurants and we have Chinese restaurants – they’ve become part of the landscape of Australia. I want to bring that [Spanish] culture and represent it in a similar way to what we find over there. I think it’s a little misunderstood, Spanish cuisine. I don’t know why. It’s one of the richest cultures in terms of gastronomy along with France, Italy and China.”
For that reason, the food of The Little Soho isn’t tied to one region of Spain.
“I want to have a gastronomic map of Spain with South Australian produce: we’ve got incredible seafood, really good vegetables, olives and olive oil. I want to use that [produce] because it’s so similar to Spain’s.
“It’s a modern interpretation of traditional dishes, with the techniques that I use,” Ales says. “I’m not a big believer in putting flavours together because they sound creative. For me, it has to have a foundation, a tradition, people have to like them. This is not an experimental type of cuisine.”
Aside from the tapas, some of the highlight dishes include zarzuela, a seafood casserole, which is something Ales says a Spanish fisherman would eat when out on the boat, and paella.
“The paella, and this is going to sound cocky, but I’m pretty sure this is probably one of the best paella’s you can have in Australia,” he says. “It’s done to order. It’s done the proper way.
“The crimes against humanity I’ve seen [to paella] in some restaurants in Australia is horrible. People boil the rice with saffron, put it in a pan and cook it like a risotto. It’s just weird. Slam it with heaps of things on top. No. There’s a way of making paella.
“Paella’s the pan. It’s the name of a rounded pan. The most crucial thing for paella is the stock you use for the rice. Other things you add to the rice. If you don’t have really good stock and rice, no matter what you do, it will be pretty average. So, that’s why we cook to order, and allow 25 minutes, because I want to do it the proper way. So far, with everyone who’s had the paella, there’s not a single grain of rice that has come back to the kitchen because it is something that is done with a lot of love, a lot of care. There’s no way I’m going to take a shortcut to make it easier to send out. I’d rather be busy in a small kitchen and deliver product I’m proud of rather than take a shortcut.”
When Ales was at Electra House, Olea received an infamous one-and-a-half star review from The Australian’s John Lethlean (after receiving positive reviews in The Advertiser and The Adelaide Review). They decided to change direction. Ales left. Olea became Level One and they ditched modern Greek for Asian fusion.
“That was a big challenge – a big building, function rooms and two restaurants,” Ales says of Electra House. “It was a project that started without me. They were just looking for an executive chef to put it in action. They had a concept that they had already decided on: a Greek restaurant. I was never asked: ‘What restaurant would you like to do?’ I would have never said, ‘a Greek restaurant’. What I did say was, ‘I’m going to make it the best Greek restaurant that I can’. I think we did really well because when I decided to leave it was booked three weeks ahead on the weekends. It was full every night. Unfortunately the owners said they wanted to attract a different market.”
Returning to the pans to cook Spanish food has rejuvenated the chef after managing up to 20 chefs and cooks in previous kitchens.
“I was missing the actual connection with day-to-day cooking,” he says.” I’m enjoying being back on the pans and feeling much more connected to the food. I feel very in control with what I do. It’s the food I’ve grown up with, the food I enjoy cooking.”
For Ales, The Little Soho feels right for right now.
“I love French food. I love doing fine-dining French food, my one dream would be to do Spanish fine-dining, unfortunately times have changed and fine-dining is a dying breed, society has moved on from that kind of restaurant. Now, I want to bring that fine-dining approach to something more casual. This is the best of both worlds – fine-dining techniques in a casual restaurant.”
The Little Soho
264 Flinders Street
Tuesdays to Sundays (various times)