Two of my most memorable meals of the last five years involved tapas. Predictably enough, the first took place in Barcelona. We were in the city for Primavera Sound and dragged ourselves out of bed on our final day to catch the last of the lunch service at the legendary Gothic Quarter eatery Cal Pep. We stood in an hour-long queue for seats at the bar, being brought slowly back to our post-festival senses by sipping a glass of cold beer as we waited. Finally our turn came and we left our lunch destiny up to our discerning waiter, well used to looking after blinking tourists sat on the stools looking for tapas authenticity.
What we got was simplicity at its best. We oohed and aahed our way through a meal that was made up of nothing more extravagant than an omlette, some chickpeas and spinach, clams cooked in white wine and pieces of Catalan fillet steak. All sprinkled with a bit of Cal Pep’s kitchen magic. Truly unforgettable and stunningly simple.
The second, a little more surprisingly, was at Cork’s An Cruibin, and it stands out not only because of the food. It was a special little pub that served food under the gaze of its sibling posh restaurant upstairs on Union Quay, both of which sadly shut their doors last year. I had unwisely taken a vegan friend for a beer and a bite, not taking the warning sign of the establishment’s name into consideration. As I got stuck into a few simple, but well-prepared dishes of moist black pudding, sweet lamb kidneys and a plate of Irish goat’s cheese, my vegan buddy was resigned to nibbling on a bit of toast with tomato mushed into it. Delicious as the pan con tomato was, it was kind of a one-sided meal in terms of enjoyment.
An Cruibin impressed me by fusing Irish cuisine with the familiar and much-loved method of tapas-style dining. They used local produce to enhance the old favourites of the cuisine, rather than just poorly impersonating it. I think you’ll agree when I say it’s hard to come by decent, reasonably priced tapas in Dublin. The Port House don’t do too bad a job of it but I find the atmosphere of these chains a little forced.
El Toro Bravo is a newly opened tapas bar and it sits on South Richmond Street, which has developed into rather a lovely street in the last few years. Myself and Niall hung out near the front bar of the restaurant for an enjoyable hour and a half while a Spanish trio sang and strummed guitar boisterously in the corner. The large restaurant, with its sizeable back garden and a large basement room near its kitchen, wasn’t full, but what with the flamenco guitar, the group of older women on the table next to us having a great laugh over a bottle of wine and the Spanish couple (good sign, eh?) chatting on the other side, it was a warm and fun place to be.
It helped somewhat to disguise the average tapas. Our deep fried prawns were coated in an almost cardboard-dry batter, disappointing at €6.35 a plate. Described romantically as a beef tomato salad with Maldon salt on the menu, a single tomato sliced into eight pieces and scattered with a bit of chopped raw garlic, three olives, a bit of olive oil and some parsley was a bit insulting at €3.90. Our pan-fried artichokes were drowning in oil, making them a rather unpalatable use of €5.50. The €5.00 sliced tomato on toast with anchovies went down a lot better, but, in fairness, wasn’t exactly stretching the kitchen’s skill. The delicious pork loin on toasted bread was a welcome surprise, with a port reduction sauce so sweet it almost erased the memory of those sad, dry prawns. We decided to share the Spanish cheeseboard for dessert, which turned out to be a wise move. It was, we felt, steeply priced at €13.50 and once again not much of a stretch for the kitchen. Nonetheless, the slices of Tetilla, Manchego, Idiazábal and Queso Azul accompanied by honey and grapes on the board helped us relish the last of the delightfully complex bottle of Old Vines 2004 Tempranillo (€29) we sipped throughout the evening.
Our meal came to €68.20 and was perfectly fine. Which is a bit like describing a painting as quite nice. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect better from a tapas experience in Dublin. I’d be delighted to see El Toro Bravo develop into a place worthy of dropping into for a glass of wine and a few plates of well prepared food. At the moment, its charming atmosphere is its best asset and I hope its food soon follows suit.
El Toro Bravo
27 South Richmond Street