On another overcast and uninspiring Wednesday in the southwest, I made my way to the most well-known of tapas restaurants: La Tasca. A mundane choice for a first review, some might think: a chain restaurant, tucked away behind Parade Gardens and overlooking Pulteney Bridge and the weir, pumping out formulaic “authentic Spanish” meals for Bath’s burgeoning middle-class and many tourists. Some might say. But I don’t.
As I entered the restaurant I was greeted by friendly and welcoming staff, seated quickly and effortlessly and settled into the restaurant’s ambience within a few seconds. Bath’s signature Georgian architecture hardly lends itself to a Campesino style restaurant – there is a pagoda-like structure at the entrance – but La Tasca have managed to pull this off with aplomb. Prints of Matisse and Picasso are liberally strewn across the brightly coloured but not gaudy walls whilst bunches of dried chillies and whole legs of jamón line the windows.
Tapas is an important culture in Spain, where diners traditionally share four to six smaller dishes rather than one “main course”. Although the restaurant also offers an all-you-can-eat Paella student menu on a Wednesday (£10, incl. a beer or sangria), we chose to eat tapas on this occasion and asked the opinion of our knowledgable waitress from Barcelona. She recommended, and we consequently ordered: wild Patagonian king prawns, cooked in a chilli and garlic oil; hake with a vegetable confitada; pork cheeks cooked in Pedro Ximenez on a bed of fries; a goat’s cheese and tomato salad with basil dressing; chargrilled asparagus, green beans and onions with chickpeas; Boquerones (fresh anchovies with vinegar) and some of “Spain’s best stone-in olives” as an appetiser – these dishes ranged from £4-£7. The well-designed and comprehensive wine list features predominantly Spanish wines, starting from £4-£5 for a small glass and £15-£30 for a bottle. We had coffee to finish.
The food was of a good standard. My expectations of chain restaurants is never very high, but the Boquerones were well-sourced and fleshy and the pork cheeks were cooked to perfection in the sticky, sweet and slightly smoky sauce. Chips, however, are not the correct vehicle for this dish. Once the tender meat was gone, it was like eating a posher version of chips and gravy. The flavour of the hake and confitada was great, but it didn’t fit with the rest of the dishes we’d ordered and the fish was a touch dry.
The tomatoes in the tomato and goat’s cheese salad weren’t very flavourful, but this can be accounted for by tomatoes being out of season. That aside, the grilled goats’ cheese balanced the fresh flavour of the tomatoes and paired well with our chosen red wine. Chargrilled vegetables aren’t the hardest of dishes, and the ones we had were competently cooked. They complemented the other dishes well with their smoky taste still lingering in my mouth as I write. The presence of chickpeas was surprising, but worked with the flavours of the dressing.
The “Gambas Pil-Pil” (prawns with chilli and garlic) was certainly the highlight for us both. The dish arrived at our table with the oil still bubbling from the oven and brought with it its delicious aroma. Seafood in the UK tends to be mediocre at best,but the chef at La Tasca was able to keep the freshness and flavour of the prawn while giving it a good kick from the chilli-garlic oil.
It strikes me that La Tasca has a bit of an identity crisis: is it a tourist-pleaser, a student-feeder or a rustic Spanish restaurant? I think it changes its identity depending on the customer. For students, it’s got some great deals on paella and tapas. For tourists there is a good lunch menu (£6.95 for two tapas and a starter) and the daily specials manage to keep things lively and interesting.
The overall combination of pleasant atmosphere, friendly staff and range of dishes available made the dining experience very enjoyable. This may well have been helped along by the wine and ‘Carajillo’ (coffee with a splash of brandy, or in this case, brandy with a splash of coffee), but nevertheless we would recommend La Tasca for anyone who wants the tapas experience with the option of some safer dishes for the less adventurous. Good job La Tasca.