One of my favourite things to eat is tapas – defined as ‘tasty little morsels of food to be devoured with a cold drink’. Unfortunately, one of my least favourite things to eat is also tapas – if done badly. I’ve had some fantastic tapas in Spain over the years, particularly in Madrid and Girona, but I’ve seldom found really good tapas in the UK, with restaurants seemingly hell bent on messing around with it and losing every ounce of its authenticity in the process. For me, although the definition could apply to any type of cuisine, real tapas should be Spanish, so such abominations as ‘Thai tapas’ or ‘tapas portions of pasta’ don’t cut it with me either.
So, it was with some trepidation that I headed to Bar 44 Tapas in Cowbridge, in some decidedly un-Spanish weather on Bank Holiday Monday, with the hope that some Spanish food might make me feel a bit more summery! I’d heard good things, not least of which that Bar 44 has just been named in the 2012 Good Food Guide, and I was expecting good things too, having been pleasantly surprised when I looked at the menu online by the discovery that Bar 44 does nothing but tapas. I’m a big fan of places that do one thing and do it well, so this was looking promising – but of you never know, and the proof of the tapas is in the eating!
Bar 44 is upstairs on the High Street in Cowbridge, and even on a miserable, drizzly day was light and airy, furnished with light wood and light coloured suede chairs. We hadn’t booked (you can only reserve tables on Sunday lunchtimes), but were welcomed at the door by a lady who was highly apologetic that they didn’t have a table for us at the moment (a packed restaurant on a dismal day is also a good sign!) but we were more than happy to wait at the bar, where we ordered a bottle of the house red wine and settled down to enjoy. As it was, a table became free after about 2 minutes so we went to sit down and look at the menu.
Mr W was happy to leave himself in my capable tapas ordering hands, so I chose a selection of dishes for us to try. They recommend 4-6 dishes per couple for a meal, or one or two dishes if you just want a snack with a drink. As well as hot tapas dishes, ranging from the staples to some specials, including a daily selection, Bar 44 has a very wide range of charcuterie and Spanish cheeses to sample. They try to source many of their ingredients from independent artisan Spanish producers, and mix them with the best of local Welsh produce.
Talking you through our tapas in no particular order, first up were Lamb, Mint and Chilli Meatballs in a Red Wine and Tomato Sauce. This was a bowl of delicious meaty morsels, with a strong hit of mint and just a touch of chilli, in a rich and delicious sauce. They were small enough that you could easily pop a whole one in your mouth in one go, making them an ideal bar snack alongside a drink.
Next, we tried Hake in San Miguel Batter, Caperberry and Lemon Aioli. These were really good – crispy batter, not a hint of grease, with succulent chunky goujons of hake inside, and a tasty alternative to tartare sauce to dip them in. Beer battered fish is a favourite of mine, and I remarked to Mr W that if all battered fish was like this, I’d be a very happy lady!
No tapas selection would be complete for me without some baked cheese, so I opted for the Baked Cañarejal Cheese, which was served with Rosemary, country Bread, and Olive Jam – although we were told that they’d run out of the olive jam so it would be served with tomato jam instead, and this was actually really good, sweet and tangy, and the perfect complement to the rich cheese, which was infused with flavours of rosemary. My only slight complaint on this dish was that there wasn’t quite enough bread to go with all of the cheese, so if I was ordering it again I’d probably order extra bread.
As it was, we’d ordered some triple cooked bravas chips to accompany our tapas, so now’s an appropriate moment to mention these gorgeous crunchy bites, because as well as dipping them in the aioli and tomato dips that accompanied them, I piled some of the melted cheese on top. Probably a heart attack waiting to happen, but very good, and very indulgent (and also the reason why I will never be a size 8 again)!
On with the tapas, and we enjoyed cider poached chorizo, a simple dish of sliced chorizo with a sauce that just had a hint of cider and a stronger hint of the characteristic paprika. No photos of this one, unfortunately, as it came along a bit later than the other dishes, by which point I was getting stuck in to my tapas and my in built blogger’s urge to photograph my food had gone out of the window! It was the simplest of all the dishes, though, so I am sure you can use your imagination for that one!
The Wye Smoked Salmon and Crab Tostados were interesting. For me, they didn’t really work with the selection of tapas that we’d chosen, but that’s just my bad selection skills, and in hindsight they’d have been better teamed with a charcuterie or cheese selection. As a starter or a canapé, however, they’d have been lovely – plentiful rich crabmeat and seasoned smoked salmon balanced on a crispy crouton. Mr W particularly enjoyed these.
Last, but by absolutely no means least, were Chicken and Serrano Ham Croquetas. When I took part in Food Bloggers Unplugged a few months ago, I cited Spanish croquetas as my ‘desert island food’ – the one thing I’d be happy to eat for the rest of my life if there was nothing else available. I’ve tried some truly heavenly ones in the past, but have found that UK tapas restaurants rarely have them on the menu, or if they do, they bear little resemblance to the croquetas I’ve waxed lyrical over in Spain. I’ll cut to the chase and say straight away that these were a triumph – I am so happy to have finally found somewhere that gets them right, and it’s a bonus that it’s somewhere so close to home! They were perfect crispy shells, filled with creamy, cheesy béchamel and tasty little pieces of chicken and Serrano ham. Heaven!
Bar 44’s dedication to tapas doesn’t stop there, as they also have a tapas pudding selection, plus a range of cakes, cookies and flapjacks. For me, the tapas puddings were perfect, as I was so full up after my tapas indulgence that I couldn’t have fitted in a full size pudding! I chose a lemon, orange and cinnamon crema Catalina, which was delicious and creamy with a wafer thin sugary top. Mr W said that for him the cream wasn’t quite set enough, and admittedly it was certainly more liquidy than set, but I love it that way so it wasn’t a problem for me, and the flavours of orange, lemon and cinnamon were perfectly balanced.
Mr W opted for coffee and Welsh cakes, which were so good that he had seconds of both!
Our tapas selection, plus a bottle of wine, puddings and coffees (two in Mr W’s case) came to £55, which I thought was very reasonable, given the quality of the food we enjoyed, and the care that must go in to preparing so many small dishes.
We liked the ambience of the bar too. It has a definite buzz, and was busy long into the afternoon, despite the dreary weather and the fact that you could easily not notice it if you were walking along the high street, so it’s clearly got a good reputation – and deservedly so. They have a great selection of cocktails available too (the Cherry and Vanilla Daiquiri caught my eye!) and I can imagine it being a lovely evening venue to get together with friends, especially as tapas is such a sociable meal. The service was second to none – very personal, with a lot of care and attention to detail.
We loved our lunch at Bar 44 – Mr W in fact proclaimed it to be “The best lunch I’ve had in a long time”, and I think I’d agree. It’s nice to do something a bit different from the usual three courses, and much kudos must go to Bar 44 for sticking to their tapas guns and not watering down the menu with any ‘bog standard’ main dishes alongside the tapas selections. Next to try are the charcuterie and cheese selections. Having spoken on Twitter, since our visit, to one of the team of two brothers that runs Bar 44, Owen Morgan, it’s clear that they take incredible pride in their produce and selections, and we will definitely be heading back to Bar 44 in the not too distant future to try some more Spanish delights.
Food: ***** Service: **** Ambience: ****
Bar 44, 44c High Street, Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan, CF717AG