El Tapas Grá, 7 Waterloo Place, Londonderry Tel 028 5127 1801. www.eltapasgra.com
Derry City has Galway vibes. This was the verdict of our youngest following a family day trip to the Maiden City during Twixmas. We went to the Tower Museum, walked the old town’s walled circumference, paid our respects at Free Derry corner and tried unsuccessfully to get into Peadar O’Donnell’s (there was no room at the inn thanks to Covid sit-down restrictions). And when we entered the doors of El Tapas Grá for something to eat before heading back to Belfast, I knew exactly what she meant.
A rockin’, pumpin’ soundtrack greets you. It’s loud enough to get your foot tapping but not so distracting as to make conversation a shouting match. Front of house staff are on the ball and immediately after checking our vaccination QR codes no time is wasted to walk us through the cosy bare brick and wood panelled dining room to a table by the window overlooking busy Waterloo Place and take a drinks order.
Sáne Stewart, a restaurant pro with many years’ experience working in the kitchens of top restaurants in Belfast and further afield, opened El Tapas Grá about ten minutes before Covid lockdown hit the country in March 2020. The fact that the place is still able to open at all is a tribute to him and his team. The fact that the food is so good is a determining factor in this. People will always go where the quality is and El Tapas Grá is destination restaurant quality.
In recent years the city has seen a blossoming of excellent restaurants and street food outlets: Mekong, The Primrose, Pyke & Pommes, Nonna’s, Spaghetti Junction, Walled City Brewery, the Pickled Duck, the Sooty Olive, Brown’s and others have collectively generated enough momentum for Derry City and Strabane District Council to justify its commitment to the promotion of the area as a culinary destination. The council deserves recognition for this support.
El Tapas Grá’s small plates are a distinctly Derry interpretation of the Spanish principle. They’re big hearted and generous in the north west and on the international crockery weights and measurements register, the Derry small plate passes as a dinner plate anywhere else.
The menu carries a suggestion that five or six such dishes would be plenty for two people. There were four of us and it was pure greed which, in the end, saw us pay the bill for 19 dishes. We couldn’t help it. The first wave of mixed olives, Catalan tomato bread, salted and sweet crispy kale and bacon bites told us that something fabulous was going on in the kitchen.
We quickly went back to the menu to see what else we could have in a second wave and that was when we fell into the inescapable tapas vortex. Halloumi fries served with a zingy sweet and sour chilli jam, soft and tender pork belly bites with the exceptional and locally brewed Lo & Slo sauce, fine and crispy calamari and the unforgettable chorizo bonbons merrily bombarded us with their flavours and textures until we reached the end point and because it was perfect, we laughed out loud: macaroni cheese made with Manchego.
Mac and cheese is the holy grail of the 21st century youth catalogue of food treats. But it is not always finely made. The macaroni is often overdone, the sauce too floury and the quality of the cheese poor. Sáne Stewart has kicked down the solid Spanish oak door of convention and created something very cheeky and very fine. Who would have thought that the subtle ovine flavours of Manchego could hack it?
Desserts of Crema Catalana which was textbook and a tarta de Santiago, shamefully vandalised by a quick and completely unnecessary texture and flavour destroying re-heat, close the curtains on the dinner. During a round of post-dinner cocktails and alcohol-free Estrella Damm for Dad we make a promise a return visit before next Twixmas. Galway can wait.