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Watch & Learn: Ox & Angela shares the warmth with small bites

Serving small, sharable plates may be the hottest trend to hit restaurants in years, but at Calgary’s Ox & Angela, it is authentic Spanish tapas that inspire the menu.

By Cinda Chavich

“Spanish wine and food culture has such deep roots, there’s just so much to explore,” says executive chef Steve Smee, whose cooking and business school background pairs nicely with the front-of-house experience of his partners Jayme MacFayden and Kelly Black.

In just over two years, the trio opened two extremely successful restaurants along the city’s trendy 17th Avenue strip – the kind where clients are lined up for a table even in mid-week. In fact, that’s what inspired Ox & Angela, a spot originally conceived as a cocktail bar with small bites, where customers could wait for a space to open up at their popular Una Pizza + Wine down the street.

But Ox & Angela soon had a new life of its own, its true Spanish side evolving and taking root.

“We just saw an opportunity for a smaller neighbourhood restaurant – we wanted it to be warm and inviting, and be a place without rules,” says MacFayden of their inspired space, with its casual vibe, killer cocktails and late-night dining.

“Everything we had been reading about chefs was about great new restaurants in Spain, but at the core, the food is all very traditional. Wonderful wines, flavours liked smoked paprika, air-dried chorizo – we just knew it was going to be Spanish.”

Ox & Angela came from an Internet search – a faded photo of a Spanish couple – and the namesakes inform this space. Half is a dark, masculine lounge and half a lighter, brighter dining room, both offering the same sharable dishes from the busy open kitchen, whether you’re dining at noon or at midnight.

Smee plays with the Spanish tapas theme a little but sticks to the traditional flavours, whether imported Serrano ham and Manchego cheese, offered straight up, or skewered into creative pintxos, a popular snack in the Basque country of Spain. There’s the classic Tortilla de Espana (Spanish omelette), salt cod fritters and paella. But Smee’s addictive take on patatas bravas – fried tiny fingerling potatoes tossed in his own spicy ketchup and with garlicky aioli for dipping – or the lamb meatballs (albondigas), showcase local Alberta ingredients.

“This food is really fresh and simple and clean,” says Smee. “That’s the basis of my cooking, not fancy but ingredient driven.”

Pork comes from Broek Pork Acres and lamb from Ewe-nique Farms, but cheeses, jamón and chorizo are DOP products imported from Spain.

“That comes at a price, and comes with challenges,” says Smee, recalling a shipment of jamón Serrano held up in Canadian customs for several weeks, and their unique Spanish wines, made from Perellada or Xarel.lo grapes that customers love even if they’re hard to pronounce.

“If I’m going to use these ingredients, I want to use authentic, certified ingredients,” he says.

Smee calls his menu “a work in progress,” but adds it’s always progressing toward more authentic Spanish flavours. His grilled sardines come drizzled with a dry Manzanilla sherry vinaigrette, and

The Spanish Table menu – seasonal and direct from the chef – offers 11 courses for just $45 per person (a bargain at just $21 for lunch).

Whether it’s just a jug of sangria on the patio, a big Alberta Wagyu beef ribeye, or a tapas feast with 10 of your friends, Ox & Angela is a stylish spot to linger over the kind of food that’s meant for sharing.