Perhaps I went to the wrong bars, perhaps I was handicapped by my inability to speak Catalan, perhaps I was ordering my tapas at the wrong time of day, when the only thing remaining behind the counter was a lukewarm plate of sheep intestines. All I know is that, with the exception of a few joints I visited in Andalucia earlier this year, the tapas I've eaten in London have been vastly superior to the stuff I've tried in Spain.
For many years, I was an habitue of Galicia, a wonderful place near Portobello Road where gloomy waiters served a matchless pulpo a la plancha. And now I've found another tapas bar closer to home and just as good called El Parador. It doesn't usually do octopus, annoyingly, and it's on a fairly horrid stretch of road between Euston and Camden Town. But it looks and feels like the genuine article - the decor's basic and the boss wears a colourful, short-sleeved shirt, anyway - and I can think of few restaurants where you can stuff your face on choice proteins (squid, prawns, chicken livers etc) quite so enjoyably or cheaply.
X and I arrived, as usual, stressed, late and in a huge bate. So, pleasingly, did Clare the fashion guru and Jason the Ducatti-rider, and we all behaved incredibly rattily with one another until appeased by nicotine, Fino, Rioja and steaming plates of dead animal. That's the joy of Spanish cuisine. It gives you the perfect excuse to eat protein, protein, and more protein, without feeling as if you're doing anything sinful or unhealthy. It's the Spanish way, you persuade yourself. They don't do vegetables.
Which is why I secretly got very cross when the girls started enthusing over the numerous vegetarian options. "Ooh! Ooh! Mashed sweet potato cakes with black pepper and butter!" they squealed. "Roast butternut squash with tomatoes, sage and onions!" Personally, I suspect that these dishes are about as Spanish as my bottom. Even if they are authentic, I wouldn't recommend them. The squash was as fine as a bland orange vegetable ever could be, but the potato resembled a watery, more tasteless version of the stuff I feed my baby.
Worse still were the patatas bravas. Normally, I'd consider this the one vegetable dish you really do have to eat with tapas. But not the version they serve at El Parador. Instead of being dry-fried and spicy, the potatoes came overcooked in their worthy, tough, veganish skins with a sloppy, poorly seasoned tinned tomato sauce. They were so yucky we sent them back immediately.
You can always tell a well-run restaurant by the way the staff handle your complaints. Our nice, efficient Scottish waitress took the potatoes away instantly without looking peeved and without embarrassing us further by asking what exactly was wrong with them. El Parador, clearly, is a very well-run restaurant.
Before I go on to the many things El Parador does well, let me grumble briefly about the langostinos salteados. These consisted of Mediterranean prawns pan-fried with spring onions, ginger and lime, which would have been great if a) they'd been what we ordered (we actually wanted the prawns with chillies, but it wasn't the waitress's fault because we just said "We'll have the prawns"), and b) we were in an oriental restaurant. But if you're eating tapas, you want something more Spanish. Why can't they just serve their prawns simple and chargrilled?
Right, enough griping. You'll be beginning to think El Parador isn't worth a visit and believe me it is, it really is. Apart from the friendly service and the relaxed atmosphere, there are many dishes they do exceptionally well, most notably those involving squid. They do two sorts, both of which must be ordered in vast quantities. First, yer basic deep fried rings (usually with a few crunchy tentacles thrown in). Second, the more sophisticated baby squid sauteed with olive oil and fresh chillies, which are scrummy and melt-in-the-mouth tender.
I'd also highly recommend the chicken livers with sweet vermouth, red onions and butter - "But they're all squidgy in the middle," protested X; "Exactly as they should be," Clare, Jason and I chorused - and the rosario chorizo (sausage pan-fried with sweet peppers and brandy). That still leaves at least 20 dishes we never got round to trying, at least half of which - chances are - must be as good as the ones we ate.
With a fairly handsome tip, the bill came to pounds 72 for four people. Considering we totally pigged out and could easily have saved a few bob by eating a bit more bread, I reckon this represents seriously good value for money. It would be cheaper in Barcelona, of course. But as I say, they don't really know how to do tapas over there.
WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST
Richard Ehrlich's selection
Apart from an apparent sherry shortage, I can find little to fault in this brief but welcoming wine list - especially the low prices, which are just my type
Jaume Serra Reserva, 1988, pounds 14.50
Jaume Serra is a thoroughly modern, thoroughly reliable Penedes producer.
Take a chance on this ancient vintage
Martn Codax Albarino, 1997/98, pounds 14.60
An exemplary Ras Baixas, selling for a shade more than twice the normal retail price
Basa Rueda, pounds 11.50
Not as elegant as the Albarino, but a clean, fresh, crisp glugger;
ideal for summertime drinkingReuse content