It’s tapas time again – Restaurant review: La Tasca, Cardiff

I think it’s fair to say that tapas is ‘in vogue’ at the moment, and is a trend that is here to stay in Cardiff, with several new tapas bars (ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous) opening in recent months. One tapas restaurant I’d never tried was La Tasca, which is part of a chain of Spanish-themed restaurants. I’d heard varying reports about it – particularly in relation to the Cardiff branch, so combining this with my natural wariness towards chains, I’d never ventured in for anything more than a drink – but when I was invited to go along and try a meal, I thought I ought to take the opportunity to judge for myself!

The Cardiff branch of La Tasca is in the Brewery Quarter, which is somewhat notable for its proliferation of chains. Mr W and I visited on a Tuesday night and it was relatively busy. We sat downstairs, but there was something going on upstairs that sounded a bit like bingo – I’m sure it wasn’t, but we never did get to the bottom of what it was. It wasn’t intrusive to our evening, just very strange! When we arrived, we were welcomed and shown to our table by a very friendly, helpful waiter who asked if we’d visited before and explained the tapas concept to us. The menu had a lot of variety, with the dishes saying which part of Spain they originated from, which was a nice touch. There was also a selection of paellas (or “paella’s”, according to the website – those who know me will know that this apostrophe transgression will not have gone down well) for those who prefer something other than tapas.

We chose a selection of dishes, plus some bread with oils. Even though I ordered the bread at the end of reciting my order of tapas, it came beforehand, and we had finished munching our way through it by the time the rest of our food arrived, making it more of a starter than an accompaniment. We also chose a bottle of Spanish Merlot, which was described as smooth, rich and elegant, but which I actually found incredibly heavy.

Bread with oil and vinegar

Bread with oil and vinegar

Our tapas was a mixed bunch (which is kind of the idea, I suppose!) but we were disappointed not to see any Spanish cured meats or sausages on offer, as we normally like to try a sharing board if there’s one available. The best dish we tried was Spanish black pudding with chorizo (chorizo & morcilla) which came with some peppers and onions and was tasty, hot and well cooked with a nice mixture of flavours. It looked good too.

The best dish of the night

The best dish of the night

Also good were the gambas gabardina, cooked in paprika batter, although the accompanying garlic mayonnaise had a very synthetic taste to it.

Gambas

Gambas

Croquetas de manchego, with cheese and spinach, were okay, but didn’t taste as if they were freshly made and didn’t have the creamy béchamel texture that I love about proper, authentic croquetas.  They also had unnecessary garlic mayonnaise dolloped underneath them, so short of scraping it off, you couldn’t really avoid it. Had these been my first taste of croquetas, they certainly wouldn’t have resulted in my croqueta obsession. Unfortunately, I’d say they were probably mass produced, homogenised versions that appear in every branch of La Tasca – but I could be wrong. Also, there were three of them – never a good number for a sharing dish. Awkward.

An unholy trinity of croquetas

An unholy trinity of croquetas

Albondingas – beef and pork meatballs – were a little bit on the lukewarm side. I thought they were reasonably tasty, but Mr W was less impressed and wasn’t keen on them, rating them as his least favourite dish of the night.

Albondingas

Albondingas

One of the ‘Chef’s Specials’ (albeit they appeared in a permanent section on the main menu under this listing), slow cooked pan fried duck wings served with lentil and Serrano ham stew, looked as if they were going to be pretty awful, but were actually very tasty, especially the lentils, which was a surprise and just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a book (or a tapas dish) by its cover – at first glance I’d have thought they were going to be dried out and unpleasant. The Serrano ham wasn’t overly plentiful, though, which was a shame, as it could have been an excellent combination of flavours with a bit more salty ham to contrast with the lentils.

Duck wings

Duck wings

Finally, patatas bravas had a very tasty spicy sauce, but were not crisp enough in the first place to survive having it dolloped on top of them – and not crisp at all once the dolloping had been done.

Patatas bravas

Patatas bravas

On the whole, none of the dishes was awful, but none of them was outstanding either, and I hadn’t yet had anything that would make me rush back, but we decided to try a pudding in case it swung it for us. It didn’t. Our choice of churros, with chocolate dipping sauce, suffered again from ‘chain syndrome’ – firstly, the churros themselvves, very uniform in shape and size, and without a bend among them (I was reminded of the old story about EU bananas having to have a certain angle of bend to them) had a definite air of mass-production about them and I wouldn’t mind betting they were cooked from frozen. The outside was too thick and chewy, and there was no fluffy centre.  Real, fresh churros should have a crispy exterior and a fluffy centre – and preferably be dusted with cinnamon, which these weren’t. Secondly, I have no idea why they were interspersed on the plate with strawberries and marshmallows and this made us feel as if we were in a Harvester or McDonald’s, rather than enjoying anything close to an authentic Spanish experience. The chocolate dipping sauce, however, was one of the highlights of the meal – rich and dark, and not too sugary. Mr W also enjoyed a Segafredo coffee.

Churros...with marshmallows and strawberries

Churros…with marshmallows and strawberries

On the plus side, the service we experienced was excellent. Both the people who served us on our visit were friendly, cheerful, helpful and attentive, and couldn’t be faulted. I actually felt a bit sorry for them that they were having to serve up food that wasn’t up to the standard of the service they gave us.

The décor in the restaurant tries hard to be authentically Spanish but ends up trying a bit too hard – in the way that Café Rouge tries too hard to be French by emblazoning random French words around the wall and windows, and Bella Italia tries too hard to be Italian by having faux Tuscan style walls in places that clearly wouldn’t have Tuscan walls (e.g. cinema complexes). Sometimes, less is more! The variety of fruit, veg and other items hanging on the wall looked good from a distance, but not so much when you got up close and personal – which we couldn’t help doing with the location of our table (the goodies in the photo were hanging above Mr W’s head).

Spanish stuff on the wall

Spanish stuff on the wall

I can imagine that La Tasca would perhaps go down well with a big group who were trying tapas for the first time, or with families (the pudding we had would certainly be a hit with a lot of the children I know!) and I can imagine it having a nice buzz at a weekend – it had a pretty good buzz on a Tuesday night! Sadly, apart from the excellent service, it just didn’t quite hit the mark for us, and I think that if you’ve tried and enjoyed non-touristy tapas in Spain, you’d probably end up being disappointed by this. There is certainly better (and, admittedly, worse) tapas to be had in the area.

Food: **  Service: ****  Ambience: ***

La Tasca, Unit 6, The Old Brewery Quarter,Cardiff, CF10 1FG

www.latasca.com/cardiff

I was invited to try the menu at La Tasca as a guest, and as such, our meal and drinks were complimentary.

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