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Friday, January 18, 2013
The Spanish like nothing more than popping into a bar for a chat and tapas on the way home. But how well does this tradition translate into the chain restaurant variation of turning appetisers into main courses? SIMON PARKIN thinks pretty well.
Tapas – that Spanish tradition of serving a series of mini appetisers — is a culinary style that is so easily done badly, so a national chain taking it on should set alarm bells ringing.
Thankfully, La Tasca is at the better quality end of the pecking order — closer to the generally well regarded Portuguese-influenced Nandos than the fast food monoliths that litter our high streets.
Whether anyone from Spain would actually recognise what they serve as genuine tapas is, however, another question.
Like most UK tapas-serving establishments they’ve developed it from small bar-top snacks aimed at people heading home from work into larger dishes that diners combine to create a seated main meal.
According to legend, the tapas tradition began when Castile’s King Alfonso the Wise recovered from an illness by drinking wine and nibbling small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered taverns to serve their guests food along with wine and the tapas became a kind of loophole in the law to allow drinkers to imbibe alcohol.
The serving of tapas is generally used to encourage conversation. There is something fantastically sociable about it. Tapas in its Spanish form encourages people to share, swap and generally discuss and enjoy the food they are eating.
The couple of times I’ve eating tapas in Spain it has involved standing at the bar picking from trays of delicacies each priced with a different coloured cocktail stick which the bartender tots up at the end of the night.
La Tasca attempts to take this tradition and mould it into a more restaurant-friendly experience. So diners sit at tables, rather than loitering at the bar, and dishes, rather than being finger food size, are more substantial.
The serving style and portion size maybe different, but many of the basic dishes are recognisably Spanish.
The menu contains many of the stable favourites you would find in tapas bars across Spain — 31 different mini dishes in all, not including nibbles and starters — from Catalan-style chicken to king prawns dipped in San Miguel batter to chorizo and Spanish black pudding fire roasted with peppers to Spanish omelette, pork belly and chicken breast cooked in sherry sauce. Eight are vegetarian.
There are also half a dozen chef’s special which include a number of recent additions including slices of tender Spanish octopus with patatas, Spanish white anchovies and slow-cooked pan-fried duck wings with a lentil and serrano ham stew.
The menu, which handily states the region of Spain the dishes originate from, recommends between three and four per person, but if you have trouble deciding on the right mix they also include special larger sharing options and a set selection menu priced at £24.50.
The other great Spanish tradition is, of course, paella and here the options — including chicken, Galician mussels, king prawns and squid, chicken breast and chorizo, a veggie paella of seasonal vegetables and the famous black paella with squid and lemon — come served in hefty dishes and are ample for two.
The menu warns that they may take up to 45-minutes to cook from scratch — a very welcome change from the ‘pop it in the microwave’ culture you often get.
Incidentally they’ve got a pretty adventurous children’s ‘mini tapas’ menu too.
Trying to stay true to the Spanish light meal ethic, rather than the UK-friendly heavy meal, we opted for five tapas. As a sort of starter we first tucked into the Pescado Blanco Frito (£4.75) — deep fried white fish in San Miguel beer batter, served with homemade paprika & roasted garlic mayonnaise and lemon — which had excellent quality fish, well cooked and not greasy as I’d feared.
Chicken thighs with an amazing roasted tomato, pepper and almond spiced sauce (£5.10) went really well with a largish earthen pot of Spanish style meatballs in rich tomato and vegetable sauce (£4.95).
We also had three-month-aged-Manchego cheese and fresh spinach, served with roasted garlic mayonnaise (£4.35) and a very fresh beef tomato, grilled goat’s cheese and olives salad (£4.95).
It was a pretty random mix, but that’s the beauty of tapas. And it combined well with a couple of beers for a filling meal. Fantástico.
Open: Sun–Thurs 11am–10.30pm, Fri–Sat 11am–11pm
Prices: Tapas to share from £3.35, paellas from £8.95, desserts from £2.95
Vegetarian option: Good selection
Wheelchair access: Yes