Restaurant Review: Spanish obsession – the UK’s best tapas bars

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 of my life – all without setting foot on Spanish soil. For the simple truth is that in many ways the UK offers a superior assortment of tapas bar 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, etc,  but for sheer creativity and pzazz in tapas cooking, the UK is now hard to beat. Especially as London diversity means our restaurants are full of inventive chefs 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 sub-standard food, 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 like Jose Pizarro who are on a mission to  banish clichés of dried-out tortilla and stale fried squid from our consciousness forever.

The following tapas bars have impressed me of late:

Cardiff

Bar 44 – Penarth,

14 Windsor Road, Penarth, CF64 1JH

www.bar44.co.uk/penarth/tapas

02920 705497

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.

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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 and looking after his eager clientele.

Owen’s inventive menu is complemented by lovely staff, a great atmosphere and a superb wine list with no concessions to anything outside Spain – which is exactly as it should be!

 

London

Hispania

72-74 Lombard St, London EC3V 9AY

www.hispanialondon.com

0207 621 0338

Judging by the number of recent openings, Tapas are still the current sex in London’s food scene. Indeed, there is a vast choice and almost stifling competition, but my money is on Hispania for the award of London’s finest Spanish restaurant. Everything is simply spot on, from the ornate ground floor dining room (formerly a Lloyds Bank headquarters) to the culinary delights of award-winning chef Marcos Moran.

The restaurant offers a more formal experience on the 1st floor, making it the ideal haunt for both business lunches and a lively night out. But it’s the food that really caught my attention – the menu shows flair and imagination, offering Spanish dishes with contemporary overtones. We loved the king prawn salad with apple vinaigrette, but not as much as the roasted milk-fed suckling lamb shoulder, served with graten potatoes, black garlic and piquillo pepper. The succulent, melt-in-the-mouth lamb was so tender, so exquisite in flavour,  that we could scarcely bring ourselves to finish it.

And best of all, all this delicious fayre is complemented by gracious service and a extensive wine list with plenty of good value options by the glass. London is a tough, fickle restaurant market, but I’m convinced Hispania will be around in years to come.

Aqua Nueva

5th Floor, 240 Regent St, London, W1B 3BR

www.aquanueva.co.uk

020 7478 0540

Despite the wallet-assaulting prices being asked, Aqua Nueva more than delivers with some the best, inventive tapas on offer in London. Food is paired with an assortment of delicious Spanish wine 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.

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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.

Bristol 

Bravas

7, Cothan Hill, Bristol, BS6 6LD

www.bravas.co.uk

0117 329 6887

The 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 are must-try dishes!

Bravas is 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, it 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?

 

James Lawrence @Jameswinelover

 

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.