Malabar is a bright, well-appointed and inviting Spanish-owned and run neighbourhood bar-diner with a high, blonde wood bar and dining tables. It feels fairly spartan now but a growing number of vintage curios at the entrance and retro wall hangings suggests the decor is a work in progress.
Prices are sensible: on draft, their elected cana is Asahi (20RMB/200ml; 35RMB/500ml), plus there’s Maredsous (35RMB) and Vedett (30RMB/250ml; 50RMB/500ml) while bottles include Duvel (35RMB) and old Spanish standard Mahou (30RMB). Wines are good value, too, and avoid the more obvious grapes (although nothing that would surprise any Spanish natives): reds include a Torres Ibericos rioja (245RMB/bottle; 40RMB/glass) and Res carmenere (260RMB/bottle; 45RMB/glass) and there’s a verdejo white (195RMB/bottle/35RMB glass).
Spanish bartenders are known for their strong drinks. Unlike in, say, the UK, there are no legal measures for spirits there (and, if there are, they’re not observed), a quirk evident on El Coctel’s menu which promises a Spanish gin-tonic (80RMB) with ‘an irresponsible amount of gin’. Free-pouring seems the MO here, too, and even if it isn’t consistently so, our Bombay Sapphire (50RMB) and tonic certainly bears some thunder.
From the same blackboard, a brief but enticing food menu is also impressive. Chef Daniel Alonso has just arrived from Oviedo, a coastal city in the north of Spain and offers familiar but well done Spanish fare. Prices suggest tapas-size dishes but they’re probably better described as small plates; you can certainly come hungry here and leave satisfied. The campera salad (50RMB) with potato and green beans, and the broken eggs with baby squid, made with red wine and onion, served with sautéed potatoes, makes for a decent meal and feels destination-worthy.
Behind the bar is Chinese manager Justin, formerly at Jia Shanghai
Hotel on Nanjing Xi Lu. He’s had the good sense not to pointlessly list every classic cocktail on a menu somewhere but promises he can make anything to order. On our comparatively calmer second visit, we ask him about the opening weekend fall-out with the police. They were overwhelmed by numbers, he says. ‘But that’s not what we’re about. We’re not a party bar,’ he adds, holding up his palms submissively. ‘We’re not going to go crazy.’