SALAMANCA, St Andrew’s Street, Dublin 2. Tel: 01-677 4799
I've had a lifelong love affair with Spain. It started when I was an undergraduate and had the wonderful freedom of a five-month summer break. I spent it in Catalunya, travelling up and down the Costa Brava busking with my guitar.
I'm still amazed at how much money it was possible to make busking. At a time when 500 pesetas was not far off a weekly wage for many Spaniards, we'd often make that in a night. I say 'we', because often I'd team up with others.
From north of Barcelona, in Lloret and Tossa, to south of Barcelona in Sitges and Calafell, we'd do one night of busking on the seafront and then take the train the next day to the next town. These were the years when I discovered Spanish food.
Three summers were spent like this, and by the end of it I was a fluent Spanish speaker. Thanks to the Spanish Tourist Board, I've been back many times on wine trips, exploring the likes of Priorat, Rioja and Navarra, Rueda, Catalunya and Jerez.
My most recent visit was two years ago, when I went with Marian the Blonde to show her my old Barcelona haunts. Possibly the best meal of that visit was at Cal Pep, one of Barcelona's best-known tapas bars. It was seriously skilful food, and it's the yardstick I've been using to compare the offerings of the many tapas bars here in Ireland.
One of the longest-established tapas bars in Dublin is Salamanca in St Andrew's Street, which has been trading for 11 years. I went with Bairbre Power, quite late in the evening, but we got a table easily and were shown to a table set for four. When ordering a lot of tapas, a small table can be a nightmare of shuffling and stacking to get the plates to fit, so the larger one was very welcome.
The first thing I looked at was a menu of specials, which included things such as penne with sun-dried tomatoes, Wicklow lamb, grilled cod and a sirloin steak. Presumably this menu is for people who don't like Spanish food, but have been forced to accompany others who do. I turned to the list of tapas.
Now, there are certain tapas which are almost a given, such as croquetas, patatas bravas, Spanish omelette and calamares (squid rings). If these are done right, then you've a good chance that the others will be too. So we ordered those four, plus mejillones (mussels) in a spicy tomato sauce.
Bairbre ordered a glass of Chilean Merlot and we both ordered sparkling water. I liked how they serve water. It's a system a few restaurants are using now, where they carbonate the water themselves and sell it a low price. Here it's €2 a bottle, which is pretty much what a bottle of water ought to cost in a restaurant, but very rarely does.
Apart from the mussels, all of our tapas arrived and we started to eat. Squid rings make a simple dish – all you need to do is cut the squid body into rings, batter them and fry them – and yet it's a dish that so often goes wrong.
The two commonest faults are tough squid, and batter that falls off. We had in front of us what I believe was one of the best dishes of calamares I've eaten. The squid itself was tender and the batter was golden, crispy, and remained attached to the squid. Rarely have I eaten better.
Next we tasted the croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes). Spanish croquettes are not made with potato, but with a thick bechamel. The ham pieces are stirred into the bechamel, then rolled, crumbed and fried to a golden crisp. These were good croquettes, with the right texture and with the taste of ham coming nicely through.
The patatas bravas (cubes of roast potatoes covered in a spicy tomato sauce) took me right back to the Costa Brava all those years ago. A third dish also well done.
Sadly, I couldn't get quite so enthused about the remaining two. The mussels came in a tomato sauce that had a flavour I couldn't place, and it lingered on the palate. I didn't like that flavour, and neither did Bairbre, so the mussels remained uneaten.
The was nothing wrong with the Spanish omelette; it was a generously sized portion, but it was just a bit stodgy, perhaps because of an over-abundance of potato. Still, between all the dishes we'd almost had enough to eat. I say 'almost' because we were able to squeeze in just one more dish, a classic from Catalunya, crema Catalana.
It's a variant of creme brulee that you'll find on most Catalan menus. The one we got tasted just fine, but no dessert is at its best when served at fridge temperature, and this one was no exception.
An okay espresso finished the meal for me and it brought the bill to €55.65, which was pretty good value.
As we were leaving, Bairbre asked me to taste her wine, which she hadn't drunk. It was tart and bitter, and I can't believe it tasted like this when it left the winery. A pity she didn't mention this earlier, as I'm sure they would have happily exchanged it for another wine.
On a budget
At lunchtime, you can have a starter and a main course for €10, or a main course and a glass of wine for €10. The early-bird offers three tapas and glass of wine for €19.95.
On a blowout
If you go for seafood tapas, you can spend more than €10 each. Prawns pil pil are €11.95, octopus is €12.95, brochettes of tiger prawns and monkfish are €11.95, and scallops with Iberian ham are €12.95.
The squid rings.
The ratings: 7/10 food, 7/10 ambience, 8/10 value for money, 22/30 in total.