Please don’t mention this to your Spanish friends, but over the past few months I’ve eaten sublime Jamon de Bellota, delicious chickpeas with Morcilla (black pudding) and possibly the best cod croquetas in my life – without setting foot on Spanish soil! For the simple truth is that, in many ways – and I’m putting myself out on a limb here – the UK offers a superior assortment of tapas bars and restaurants than can be found on the Iberian Peninsula. That’s not to say, of course, that top chefs haven’t impressed me in Barcelona, San Sebastian and Madrid but for sheer creativity and pzazz in tapas cooking, the UK is now hard to beat. Particularly since London seems to support a massive and ever-growing Hispanic population, intent on whetting our appetites with trendy interpretations of the Spanish classics.
Of course, our approach to tapas is quite divorced from its original and even contemporary place in Spanish culture. In Spain, despite the fact that they have become a cuisine in their own right, tapas owe their origins to a humble Andalucian bar snack. The often repeated story tells that bartenders would cover glasses with a saucer or tapa (cover) to keep out flies, the custom progressing to offering cheese or olives to sherry drinkers. Bar owners turned this habit into a regular norm of offering tit-bits to encourage drinking.
Today, tapas bars are seemingly everywhere and as can be expected, some restaurateurs have really exploited our love of this wonderful institution and serve, frankly, sub-standard fayre, luring unsuspecting diners in pursuit of a misguided idea of ‘Spanishness.’ But there are also some truly astounding venues, supported by a firmament of leading chefs, such as Jose Pizarro, who are on a mission to banish cliches of dried-out tortilla and stale fried squid from our consciousness forever.
The following tapas bars have really impressed me of late…
Cardiff: Bar 44, Penarth
A wonderful addition to Cardiff’s tapas scene, Bar 44 is in one sense an old school bar, complete with the obligatory Spanish tiles, wooden stools and kitchen-side dining. But then you sample the food, an exquisite medley of traditional tapas of excellent quality with some more creative and unusual dishes thrown in for good measure. So among the Jamon croquetas and patatas bravas, you’ll find playful snacks more in keeping with the modern trend of pushing the envelope beyond the classics. Tiger prawn and squid burger, Rioja poached Chorizo and Oloroso braised Ox cheek hit all the right notes, as did the sublime Valencian orange cake, paired with a glass of sweet sherry. I was impressed though, before I even glanced at a menu; this restaurant was notable for the fact that it’s the only venue I visited where the owner, Owen, was actually present looking after his eager clientele. Owen’s inventive menu is complemented by lovely staff, great atmosphere and a superb wine list with no concessions to anything outside Spain – as it should be!
14 Windsor Road, Penarth, CF64 1JH. 02920 705497. www.bar44.co.uk
London: Copita Del Mercado
Judging by the number of recent openings, Tapas are still the current sex in London’s food scene. Copita Del Mercado is the most recent entry into this ever expanding firmament of Spanish restaurants, the younger sibling of established Soho venue, Copita. The restaurant offers communal tables and kitchen-side stool dining, making it the ideal haunt for both solo diners and couples on a romantic sojourn. And although it’s early days yet, Executive chef Ignacio Pinilla’s menu already shows real flair and imagination, offering contemporary Spanish dishes with North African overtones – Neck of lamb with Pistachios and apricots was utterly divine. This delicious fayre is complemented by gracious service and a extensive wine list with plenty of good value options by the glass. This one deserves to be around in years to come.
Unit 3, 60 Wentworth St, London, E1 7AL. 0207 426 0218. www.copitadelmercado.com
London: Aqua Nueva Cava Bar
Despite the somewhat wallet assaulting prices being asked, Aqua Nueva more than delivers with some the best, inventive tapas on offer in London. Your food is paired with different Cavas by the glass: start with the always reliable deconstructed Tortilla and delicious seared tuna then progress toward monkfish and finish with duck breasts, Catalan style. These are just examples, of course, the chef will constantly vary the pairings and adapt to your preferences. Diners can order tapas a la carte in the restaurant if they so wish, but it’s much more fun to prop up the bar and chat with the lovely staff. Add into the mix a very glam décor and inviting terrace and it’s not hard to see why the place is packed at weekends.
Just make sure to ask for the sommelier Modi – he’s a fantastically engaging and charming man and if he can’t win you over to the joys of Cava, then no-one can!
5th Floor, 240 Regent St, London, W1B 3BR. 0207 839 3939. www.aquanueva.co.uk
The enormous popularity of this cosy, intimate space tells you everything you need to know about the food, a mouth-watering mix of old favourites and more creative tapas: Venison with oyster mushrooms and chilli and dates with cheese wrapped in pancetta must be tried! It’s run by a charming couple, Imogen and Kieran, who spare no expense in ensuring that each and every customer leaves happy and satisfied. All the essential ingredients are certainly there: packed at weekends and weekdays, Bravas is noisy, fun, offers great tapas and boasts an exciting wine list that gives due attention to some of Spain’s lesser known wine regions. Not to mention a healthy selection of Gin and Tonic options and sherries by the glass. The food is uniformly excellent and the staff very friendly, helpful and obliging – what more do you need from a tapas bar?
7, Cothan Hill, Bristol, BS6 6LD. 0117 329 6887. www.bravas.co.uk
Azucar manages to be all things to all men: a stylish, Cuban inspired cocktail bar with plenty of South-American Kitsch; purveyor of fine tapas and excellent wines, and, above all, a fantastic place to relax with a few drinks after work and listen to music. The eye-catching décor lures in party animals, but that’s not to suggest that the food is an after-thought as this uber-trendy destination. Those with ravenous appetites are going to love the Tortas de Pescado Ahumado (smoked haddock fishcakes with lime and coriander salsa), the Cordero Cubana and the moreish Costillas – Pork ribs slow roasted in honey & paprika. All this gorgeous food is complemented by a great selection of beers, wines and spirits, with a healthy selection of Rum and Tequila cocktails up for grab. Try the Real Mexicano.
5 Brewery Place, Leeds, LS10 1NE. 0113 2435761. www.azucarbar.co.uk
James travelled to Cardiff from London with First Great Western www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk.