Refuel: La Cala ***
12 Ellis Quay, D7.
Published 25/02/2011 | 05:00
Long long ago, during the last diaspora, when the men of Ireland were short on punts and long of hair, I left these green shores for Meircéa and found myself working in an Irish restaurant that was staffed by a dewy-cheeked, caustic-tongued strain of Irish womanhood.
Half the punters were of expatriate stock, still reeking of doledom and the bedsit. The remainder were wannabes, who were like pigs in shite so long as you played The Cranberries and threw them a free rasher now and again. These would-be Gaels thought the place was the ultimate in Paddy chic. So real, it was, like, unreal.
This experience gave me a valuable insight when it came to restaurant reviewing -- never judge an ethnic restaurant by the number of expats who frequent it. They're like cows converging around a fence with an empty field behind them. The standard of a Chinese, Italian or Indian restaurant is not guaranteed just because it's full of natives. They could be merely homesick, looking for comfort and familiarity. For the Irish in America that often meant bland food and service with a snipe. Authenticity, in other words, should not be confused with quality.
So what bearing, if any, does this have on La Cala -- a Spanish restaurant on the fringe of Smithfield that's been dishing up tapas under the radar? Well, for starters, it's unlike any other Spanish restaurant I've come across in the city, insofar as it's run and frequented by people with Iberian blood pumping through their veins. They come in all ages and sizes, from businessmen to young couples with children. They look more provincial than cosmopolitan and La Cala, despite the bullfighting posters, is not a theme restaurant. It's a home away from home.
I'd brought The Cartoonist along. His years of economic exile were spent in Madrid, so I was relying on him to vouch for La Cala's authenticity. "It was," he said, "typical." "Where's the paella?" I wanted to know. "Paella's for leftovers," he snorted. Pinchos, apparently, are where it's at. Rounds of bread topped with everything from anchovy to Serrano ham. They cost €1.50 each, or you can get a platter of eight for a tenner. Otherwise there are bocadillos stuffed with steak and Manchego cheese, salads packed with tuna, eggs and olives, or "hot dishes" that mostly comprise grilled meat, salad and potatoes.
The tapas menu is exhaustive: deep-fried whitebait, garlic shrimp, sausage in red wine vinegar, Spanish omelette, meatballs and huevos estrellados -- eggs with potatoes, peppers and ham. You could have two starter-sized tapas for a tenner, so we kicked off with calamari and patatas bravas. The squid was cut into thick bands, it was springy and white, with a subtle but distinctly fishy flavour. The batter was light, the garlic mayo thick and punchy. The patatas, meanwhile, had a soggy inclination, but the tomato sauce was good -- thin but fiery with a blast of chilli and vinegar to pep up the blandness of the spuds.
Booze-wise, La Cala offers Heineken on tap (€4.50 a pint) and even more reasonably priced Corona and Estrella Galicia at €3 a bottle. Rioja and Rueda dominate the mostly Spanish wine list. Choice by the glass is limited. I was driving, so I had a glass of Macabeo, which was bright and young -- and good value at €4.50. The Cartoonist stuck to coke, he was cycling and Roberta was "shackled to a lamppost, with no-one to protect her from passing hoodlums and piddling dogs".
Taking the hint, I pressed on with our main courses, which we ordered from the hot dishes section of the menu. Pinchos Morunos -- a nod to Spain's Moorish past -- involved grilled chunks of chicken breast served on skewers. A slow, spicy marinade of cumin, coriander and oregano, brought the meat to life, the texture was good, too -- moist and fleshy. It came with a dome of parsley and pepper-flecked cous cous and a fat wedge of lemon for squeezing.
The Cartoonist ordered lamb chops -- a pile of charred cutlets on a base of thinly sliced fried potato. There was nothing to it, garlic, salt, oil and a flaming hot grill. I thought they were overdone -- with much of the flavour extinguished. But The Cartoonist was happy to gnaw through them and reckoned I was being too harsh. He was certainly all for returning to La Cala; perhaps on a Friday night, when they put on live music -- Spanish guitar and sometimes dancing ladies.
I thought about it over a thick, silt-laden espresso -- and told him to count me in. La Cala is a straightforward sort of place. It goes for tradition, not originality, and makes a pretty good fist of giving the expatriatos what they want. Aside from affordability, the big draw for me was the easy-going atmosphere and warm service. Dublin has no shortage of restaurateurs cashing in on the trend for tapas. La Cala is different. Or maybe I'm deluded in thinking what I found there was authentic. It's true, I quite fancied my chances of passing for a Spaniard, but thanks to The Cartoonist's booming pronunciation, there was no mistaking us for natives, so we must have looked like ... oh, the shame ... a pair of tragic wannabes.
TYPICAL DISH: Tapas
RECOMMENDED: Moorish chicken
THE DAMAGE: €34 for two tapas, two mains, one glass of wine, one coke and two coffees
ON THE STEREO: Spanish pop
AT THE TABLE: Natives
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