Tapas has changed the restaurant game in the UK, transcending traditional Spanish fare to create a small plates trend that, well, we can’t really even call a ‘trend’ any more, so long has it been around.
Small plates are dividers of opinion, though. They get their share of flack: bigger menus mean more decision making, there’s never a spot of room on the table, and there’s real danger in eating with someone more greedy than you (sorry to anyone I’ve ever been for tapas with). Some people just aren’t into them – I get it. Well, only sort of – because there are all those pros, too. The relaxed feel and casual attitude, the sociability of sharing, the chance to try lots of dishes and the eradication of food envy all spring to mind.
Set in Totnes, Ben’s Wine and Tapas (as the name suggests) specialises in this sharing style of eating and embodies its cool, laid-back vibe. An offshoot from the ethically focused Ben’s Farm Shop – founded by the same local farming family as Riverford, with Guy Watson of veg box fame being Ben’s brother – it is a wine shop, bar and small-plates restaurant. And it fits rather well in this Devon market town, where the independent food scene has been bubbling happily away of late, joined by the cool little shops and boutiques that line its old streets.
In the dark of an early winter’s evening, this place glows happily, the warm light seeping through the small rectangular panes of glass in its windowed facade and out onto the quiet street. The ground level – which houses the shop as well as some of the more casual bar-restaurant space – is buzzy when we stroll in, with punters sat on bar stools, huddled around small tables and studying the shelves of wine.
We’re taken up to one of the two dining rooms on the first floor – they’re a little quieter and not as atmospheric as downstairs, but look smart in dark, chalky blues with tall lamps and varnished wooden floorboards. Vintage-style posters of European destinations like Tuscany, Madrid and St Tropez hang framed on the walls, and jazz plays through the speakers, with a notch or two more oomph than the usual sink-into-the-background playlist.
The wine here is a massive draw – trading directly with the producers in most cases, the team manage to secure great varieties at more than reasonable prices – starting from £8 a bottle (take it away or drink it in for £6 corkage), and £3 a glass. We go with the house white and a medium-bodied red, recommended by the manager, who’s serving us. Both great, and even better with the price taken into consideration.
Slices of sourdough come with crunchy dukkah (£3), the kitchen’s spiced nut mixture having proven so popular that it’s now sold in the shops too. There’s also rich-green broccoli (£4.50), delicately fiery with chilli and peppered with sesame seeds, and bouillabaisse (£8), out of which we scoop mussels and chunks of white fish with our spoons and the accompanying crispbread.
The smoked sausage cassoulet (£7.50) is a real favourite of the night, its smoky aroma noticeable as soon as it’s set down in front of us, and the chunky texture – made up of meat, carrot, celery and beans – giving it a rustic, comfortingly homemade feel.
As well as European influences, this menu also has a bit of the North African about it, not least in that dukkah but also in the chargrilled harissa cauliflower (£5). Nicely blackened in parts – but not cooked so much as to lose its texture – it comes with coarse and peppery romesco sauce. If all veg was served like this, that seven-a-day quota wouldn’t be any effort at all.
More of that romesco comes on the sweetcorn and feta fritters (£5), which were the firm favourite dish across the table.
A chocolate, orange and cardamom pot (£5) and bread and butter pudding (£6.50) put an end to the meal – the former dense and smooth, and the latter marbled with chocolate and raspberry and served with ice cream (the only misfire for me: I’m custard all the way, every day – especially in winter).
Everything is served really rather speedily – we’re done in less than two hours. Had I not been reluctantly driving, I’m sure we’d have spun that out with a bottle of something red, mind.
With a keen and eager team, willing and able to help with everything from food choices in the restaurant to wine to take home for dinner, as well as a cosy, bubbly atmosphere and hearty, well-executed food, this place is a spot-on little hideaway for quick drinks as well as big feasts.
Ben’s Wine and Tapas, 50 High Street, Totnes TQ9 5SQ; 01803 840853