The former Cafe Presse became a den of small plates (plus a few memorable big ones).
A sheepherder’s visa, Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, and a favor from Richard Nixon all figure in the saga of how Grayson Corrales’s grandparents emigrated from Spain in the 1950s.
Her grandfather hails from Aragon’s Pyrenees mountains. Her grandmother grew up in Galicia, the autonomous region of Spain that’s just atop Portugal, until poverty forced her abroad to find work—forced her to leave her daughter, MariPili, behind. Corrales’s grandparents met in Los Angeles, but farming opportunities via the Columbia Basin Project brought them to Eastern Washington.
Before she opened her own place on Capitol Hill, Corrales wrote it all down. “I intend for it to be a book,” she says of her family’s story. But until then, she tells it through the plates at MariPili Tapas Bar, Seattle Met’s Restaurant of the Year.
When her casual Galician spot crept into being in May, it was perhaps best known for taking over Cafe Presse’s former home on 12th Avenue. In a year full of hardships for restaurants, this first-time owner whose background is mostly in pastry rolled up her sleeves and blacked out her bingo card. Corrales created a place where everything succeeds: the food, the bar program full of kalimotxos and Spanish wine. The warm welcome you receive from manager Sam Mikesell, a culinary school classmate. MariPili even pulls off a most unlikely triumph in our current staff-strapped restaurant landscape—an ambitious dessert menu where every plate’s a winner.
Most diners who enter these old brick walls bring memories of its years serving Parisian cafe culture. Now, fishing nets from Galicia hang over the dining room; octopus-shaped coat hooks writhe amiably in a row beneath the bar. Small plates of croquetas and large gin and tonics swiftly establish new memories (then make them slightly fuzzy once again...it’s hard to resist another round of those gin and tonics).
Corrales grew up outside rural Basin City. Her mom was “100 percent an all-American girl,” her dad “an awkward Spanish kid, first generation.” Corrales ate tater tot casserole and PB&Js at home, but one farm circle away, her abuela fed her paella and calamares en su tinta—and told young Corrales all about Galicia, “how the food is the best in the world.”
In college she studied nutrition and competed as a bodybuilder. But as a young adult, Corrales moved in with her grandparents so she could learn to speak Spanish. And, of course, to cook her grandmother’s food, a tantalizing access point to Corrales’s identity. The chef describes Galicia as a lush and hilly place surrounded by coastline and seafood, regularly beset by rain (sound familiar?).
The notion of opening a Spanish restaurant took hold around then. “But I didn’t want to just put a Spanish stamp on something.” Corrales knew enough about Spain to realize, she didn’t yet grasp its nuances.
American diners generally understand regionality in other cuisines—Italian, Chinese, Mexican. Spain still gets miscast as a monolith of paella and jamon, despite being a country with five official languages and a confluence of food cultures.
After working in pastry and savory in places like Eden Hill and JuneBaby (she was part of the staff that walked out after the Seattle Times story), Corrales booked a flight and staged at Culler de Pau, the only restaurant in Galicia that currently holds two Michelin stars. Her time there imparted finesse that adds fireworks to heritage dishes.
Octopus over boiled potatoes is a Galician signature, but the village tabernas sure don’t serve it like Corrales does. Precise beads of potato—punched out, poached, then deep fried like the french fries of your dreams—sit next to a confetti of octopus. MariPili boils it with an onion, the traditional way, adding a few smart tweaks and a spray of Spanish-chili crunch. The texture would overjoy her abuela.
Corrales even imported wooden pulpo (octopus) plates from Galicia. Other souvenirs from her time in Spain include weekends of eating with her cousins, a Galician bread recipe from her grandmother’s childhood best friend, who grew up to run a bakery (slices come alongside the tortilla de patata), and the oxtail fideua on MariPili’s small menu of entree-size plates. A paella-esque pan of broken spaghetti, stewed in a rich braising sauce takes notes from each grandparent’s corner of Spain. The green garlic aioli on top pulls it back to the Northwest.
“Paella-esque” also applies to the actual paella on MariPili’s menu. “The taste is almost exactly what my grandma used to make,” says Corrales, though it resembles a pancake-size hash brown more than a lake-size abundance of rice in a pan. Corrales grew up eating the nontraditional style her abuela didn’t learn until she lived in California—it’s not regional to Galicia.
MariPili’s kitchen has neither the special burners nor the time-traveling ability to deliver full paella pans to tables in under an hour. Her husband’s constant raves about the tahdig he eats with Persian friends inspired this version, which still harnesses paella’s essential pleasures. It also doubles the amount of crispy rice, always the best part.
Corrales even makes traditional tapas feel new: Wedges of tortilla de patata arrive thick with sliced potatoes, looking almost like a savory apple pie (somebody please put this on a brunch menu). The patatas bravas, whole slices crosshatched, then fried, are “a pretty far cry from what you’d get in Madrid,” Corrales allows. They float on some triple-garlic aioli and a pool of the restaurant’s “abuela sauce,” an homage to summer sessions preserving peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini from her grandmother’s garden.
Her abuela is everywhere, but the chef named her restaurant after her aunt, the daughter who was born out of wedlock, left behind in Galicia when her mother needed work. MariPili (short for Maria Pilar) joined her mother and new husband in the U.S. as a teenager, but later returned to Spain. She died shortly before Corrales was born. To honor her in this way also honors her grandmother’s loss and sacrifice, says Corrales. “Sometimes I’m afraid to say it because it comes off a little too intense or deep or sad.” But it’s part of her story.