The newest arrival in Cardiff Bay’s Mermaid Quay is La Cha Cha, a Spanish themed tapas bar under the same ownership as nearby venues Demiro’s, Eddy’s Diner and the VIP Piano Bar. I wasn’t able to find out much information about it online, and was unclear on whether it was somewhere that you could enjoy a proper restaurant meal, or more of a bar, so Mr W and I popped in there on Saturday night with the intention of having a drink and trying a couple of tapas dishes – if they were good, the plan was to have more and stay for the rest of the evening.
The new owners of La Cha Cha have worked hard to make it look as much like an authentic Spanish bar as it’s possible to do inside a shop unit at Mermaid Quay, and the ambience is good, despite a few nasty pre-printed blackboards adorning the walls. The place was packed when we arrived, mainly with drinkers rather than diners in the bar area, but with a couple of tables of diners in what we were told was the ‘VIP area’ at the back of the bar. We managed to find ourselves a small table in the bar area and had a look at the wine list which featured an extensive selection of Spanish wines. It was Rioja after Rioja, with some quite expensive bottles on offer. They also have an impressive selection of premium champagnes. We’re not wine experts, and particularly not Spanish wine experts, so we asked one of the members of staff what he could recommend that would meet our wine requirements. He suggested we try the house wine, which we found a bit of a strange recommendation, but to be fair, it did actually tick the boxes we wanted it to – and didn’t break the bank either!
The tapas menu (once we managed to get hold of a copy – there didn’t seem to be enough to go round and the waitress had to go and scrounge one for us from another table!) featured fairly standard tapas selections and there was also a range of steaks and a few other main dishes. We decided to start by ordering meatballs in tomato and chorizo sauce, and prawns with chilli and garlic. Both were pretty tasty, although the portion sizes were not especially generous, so we decided to order some more dishes and stay for a full dinner. As it turns out, this was not our best decision of the night, as it transpired that we’d already had the best of the menu!
The second round of tapas consisted of a portion of Iberian ham, which was carved from a large ham on the counter, garlic mushrooms, spicy chicken wings, a selection of breads served with oil and vinegar, and cheese croquettes. I was particularly looking forward to the croquettes. Authentic Spanish ‘croquetas’ (delicious little deep fried pockets of breaded creamy béchamel with morsels of ham, cheese, chicken, fish or whatever happens to be on offer at the time) are one of my all-time favourite foods. Unfortunately, what appeared on our table bore absolutely no resemblance to anything I’ve ever tried in Spain and was in fact a dish of breaded mozzarella dipping sticks which I’d have expected to see somewhere like TGI Friday’s, and which I am sure had been bought in bulk, frozen and reheated. I don’t even know where to start with how wrong they were. Aside from the fact that Mozzarella is obviously not a Spanish cheese, they were tasteless, looked cheap and nasty and were a total disappointment. Mr W did point out that they were still cheese croquettes and therefore as described, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption in a Spanish bar that they’d bear at least a passing resemblance to what you’d get if you ordered croquettes in Spain. Between us, we ate half of one, and the remainder went back untouched.
The ham was okay, but had been cut a bit too thickly, and was certainly not as tasty as some I’ve had. The mushrooms were edible but underwhelming, and the chicken wings looked so unappetising that I didn’t even bother trying them. Mr W said they were edible, just. The bread was okay, but was randomly toasted in places (suggesting it wasn’t overly fresh) and we had to ask for the oil and vinegar that it was supposed to come with. A bottle appeared on the table, but was whisked away when we were half way through our food, without our being asked whether we’d finished it or not. The waiter who cleared our table once we’d finished eating did ask whether we’d enjoyed our food or not. He was actually Spanish, so we expressed our disappointment, particularly with the ‘cheese croquettes’. He conceded that they were mozzarella, told us that they were bought in frozen, and that he would give the chef our comments, but that it probably wouldn’t do much good as the owner had told the chef to serve them like that. He also said that the ham is normally sliced thinner, but the Spanish waiter who normally does it wasn’t there that night.
I was left with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment with the food, particularly as the average price for the tapas dishes was around £5.00. I felt a bit like I did when we ate at Café des Amis – where quality had been totally compromised in order to get the absolute maximum margin on the dishes on offer. In fact, I think I saw a bowl of whitebait on the adjacent table to ours, which looked similar to the cheap, nasty whitebait we had when we went there. It’s a shame, because the service was friendly, and as a bar I really liked the venue – Mermaid Quay needs more places like that where you can enjoy a nice glass of wine in a smaller, more intimate venue than the other bars it has to offer. I would go back for a drink – but I will certainly not be eating there again in a hurry.
Food: * Service: *** Ambience: ***
(I can’t find a web address or indeed an exact street address for La Cha Cha at the moment.)