Friday 19 January 2018

Paolo Tullio : Proving that size isn't everything

I was born an only child, but I'm beginning to understand what it's like to be constantly associated with someone else. My cosmic twin seems to be Tom Doorley, who does exactly what I do for a living and with whom I'm coupled on the TV show 'The Restaurant', as indivisible as Mutt and Jeff, Ant and Dec or Statler and Waldorf on 'The Muppets'.

This week, I did a count -- I've eaten more restaurant meals with Tom than anyone else. It stands currently at about 100, and with a new series of the show due in the New Year, I can add another eight, at least.

So immutably paired as we are, it just had to be that we both launched a book in the same week. Tom's 'Eating for Ireland' and my 'Paolo Tullio Cooks Italian' hit the shelves at the same time. And to compound the pairing, Tom asked me launch his book in The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar. So, having talked about his excellent book and food for a while, it was time to do some practical eating.

I'd arranged to meet TV producer and director Deirdre McNally for dinner in Bar Pintxo, a couple of hundred yards away in Eustace Street. If you're having trouble pronouncing that name to yourself, it's pronounced 'peen-cho', which is the northern Spanish word for tapa, which describes the little plates of goodies that you get served in Spanish bars.

In my youth I spent about a year-and-a-half in Spain, busking up and down the Costa Brava. I came to love the whole idea of tapas; you could spend an evening going from bar to bar, and in each one you'd be handed a little something to assuage the appetite. It was perfectly possible to get enough to eat over an evening, just grazing on tapas.

They originated as a simple cover to put over your glass, to keep flies out of your drink. Then, a few centuries ago, bar owners started to put a tasty morsel on top of the 'tapa', and so tapas as we know them evolved.

What a meal of tapas has over a standard dinner of three courses is that you can try a wide variety of foodstuffs without overburdening your appetite.

Each tapa or pintxo is small -- not a course in itself, just a nibble. They allow you to eat exactly as much as you want -- just one or two for those with small appetites, or lots of them for the gluttons among us.

When Deirdre and I arrived, Bar Pintxo was pretty full, but there was a table left which we took. Inside, we found ourselves lit by the most gentle of lights, and very flattering it was, but it did make reading the menu quite hard.

We were served by a waitress from Zaragoza, which really added to the whole Iberian experience.

The menu doubles as your place mat and it's printed on both sides, so there are a lot of tapas to choose from -- bread ones, hot ones, cold ones, fishy ones and meaty ones. So taking a little advice from our Spanish waitress, we started by ordering a few seafood tapas: battered squid strips, mussels with tomato and cheese, octopus salad and prawns on skewers.

The wine list is pretty good, long enough to be interesting and priced fairly. Since we were eating seafood and it was all Spanish, I picked an Albariño, a Galician wine made from their indigenous grape of the same name. It was by a producer called Cartin, who I haven't come across before, but it was a good, crisp, well-balanced white and was priced at €29. Iced bottled water was provided, so there was no need to order mineral water.

The starters arrived and there was just about enough room on the table for all the serving dishes. Of the four tapas that we'd ordered, we agreed that two of them were superb and two of them were not so great.

The octopus salad, described as 'a la Gallega' or Galician style, was really good. The octopus was unusually tender and, of course, it was perfectly paired with our Galician wine. The prawns, too, were excellent, rolled and skewered and flavoured with pil pil, a spicy, garlicky sauce.

The squid strips in a batter casing were less successful. The batter was too thick and the strips of squid inside were tough and hard to chew. The mussels, which were served in their half-shell, were covered in a layer of tomato sauce and cheese.

The topping was pretty tasty, but it did have the effect of totally masking the taste of the mussels. So much so that if you'd been blindfolded, you wouldn't have known there were mussels on the plate.

Still, what we'd had was pretty good, so we decided that we could force ourselves to eat some more. This time we ordered three meaty tapas, the chorizo sautéed with onions and Rioja, chargrilled lamb chops and marinated chicken breast.

Again, a mixed bag. The lamb chops were superb, the chorizo okay if you like chorizo, and the chicken breasts a tad dry and unexciting. What all this proves, of course, is that once you know the menu, you can eat very well when you know which tapas to choose and which to avoid.

We finished our meal with a couple of decent espressos and got a bill for €93.15, which, when you subtract the drinks, means that our seven tapas averaged less than €7 each -- good value, I thought.

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