Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona was enough to put me off my arroz negro for days. A vacuous travelogue full of unlikeable people (but for Penélope Cruz's virtuosic hysteric), it was Pedro Almodóvar sanitised and straitjacketed after years in therapy. Rather like eating tapas outside Spain, then. The truth is, nobody does Spain like the Spanish.
So the idea of a new all-Spanish tapas bar in Fulham is appealing. Lola Rojo is as cute as a button, with explosions of bright red (signified by the rojo bit, pronounced, like Rioja, with an "h"), like flashes of a bullfighter's cape on staff aprons, vibrant paintings and stools on the outdoor terrace. Even the lively manager, Isabel Ortega, has hair as flame-red as the star of Tom Tykwer's 1998 film Run Lola Run – but that, of course, is a red herring.
This Lola is a just-born sister to the original Lola in Battersea, now two years old, but don't get excited. I doubt the owners, chef Antonio Belles and Cristina Garcia, have plans to rise up and take on the successful La Tasca chain. It's all far too soulful, personal, and rackety-Spanish for cold-blooded commerciality.
The all-Spanish wine list is fun, with bottles grouped under Young Fresh & Exhilarating, or Brooding Intense & Delicious, but sadly, no years listed. I try a spicy, meaty Altun Crianza Tempranillo Rioja (£23.50) which turns out to be a 2005 vintage.
As well as an adventurous, modern take on tapas favourites, there is a scattering of classics such as boquerones, freshly prepared as a daily special. The white, lightly pickled anchovies (£3.75) are simple and delicious, especially when piled on to grilled Catalan bread with tomato (£2.60). It is too fluffy to be real "pa amb tomàquet" but is at least correctly cut so that each wedge has one side that is crust. Also appealing is a little bowl of baby artichoke "crisps" (£3.10); the deep-frying transforming the famously wine-shy vegetable into something as wine-friendly as, erm, me.
Some dishes are barely recognisable as Catalan or Spanish after their reinterpretation, but it matters not. A dish of "broken duck egg" (£4.50) is actually huevos revueltos, freshly scrambled egg with nuggets of chorizo sausage and fried potato all piled into a timbale mould. The warm, smoky, golden, oily, sweet flavours jump into bed with each other with glee (very Almodóvar) without any resulting angst (not very Allen).
Chef Sonia Suarez, who was Belles's sous chef at Battersea, gets a little Miro-esque with her swirls and flourishes, and her food lacks salt, but she has a good talent for avoiding the clichéd. Small, fresh sardines are not only wrapped in Serrano ham and grilled (£6.80), but served with a spoonful of salted lemon foam; a rare form of "espuma' in that it actually has flavour.
One of five paella variations, a midnight-black Valencian arroz negro coloured with squid-ink (£9.75) looks dry, but tastes perfectly sea-fresh, studded with sweet little bits of squid and red pepper. It comes alive when drenched with lemon and taken with a big dollop of divinely silky all i oli.
Only with dessert does the creative fiddling go too far, turning a deconstructed Santiago almond tart (£5.25) into something less than the original.
Lola Rojo is a happy update for Spanish food in this country, with its simple, modern, unpredictable approach, and sympathetic prices. It's a little bit crazy – the whole place fills with smoke at one point, and what with the "glove artichokes" and "smocked anchovies" Lola's speling cood be impruved – but that's all part of its all-female, all-Spanish charm. Let's just say it is more Penélope Cruz and less Vicky Cristina. Clearly, there is less lost in the translation when the Spanish themselves do Spanish.
SCORES: 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK, 10-11 NEEDS HELP, 12 OK, 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH, 14 GOOD, 15 VERY GOOD, 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS, 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE, 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE, 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Lola Rojo, 140 Wandsworth Bridge Road, London SW6, tel: 020 7371 8396
Lunch Tuesday to Sunday, dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Around £80 for two, including wine and service
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