MARK TAYLOR picks up the world’s smallest violin en route to his latest review…
Of course, I’m not expecting an ounce of sympathy from you, but reviewing restaurants can be a lonely business at the best of times.
It wasn’t always the case. In the good old days of company credit cards and post-lunch editors signing expense accounts through a fug of cigarette smoke and beer fumes, it would have been possible to take your extended family to a Michelin-starred restaurant, order three courses and gallons of wine (‘in the name of thorough research’) and still get the boss to rubber stamp a bill totalling more than your monthly salary.
These days, you’ll be lucky to get away with one course and a small glass of wine before the accountant slaps your wrists and puts you on the naughty step. Still, it could be worse…
In such straightened times, it’s par for the course that I end up reviewing places alone, but it would have been churlish to turn down the chance of company to review Pata Negra, particularly as the begging letter came from my editor. Well, she does pay my mortgage, after all.
Pata Negra is the latest venture from the team behind The Ox, just up the road, and the eye-wateringly cool prohibition cocktail bars Milk Thistle and Hyde & Co. This time, they have looked towards Spain for inspiration, and Pata Negra is the sort of stylish, buzzing tapas bar you could easily stumble upon in the backstreets of Barcelona, right down to the glass case filled with Spanish hams and strings of chorizo behind the bar.
Set across four floors of an old insurance company, there’s a cosy lounge bar and private room for parties upstairs. We grabbed a table on the ground floor instead, with its polished wooden floors and distressed marble-effect walls, although we could have happily grabbed a stool at the bar along with the rest of the hipsters.
Heading up the kitchen here is Dave Daly, who worked at Michelin-starred Bristol restaurant Harveys in the 1990s, and who has since worked in a number of Bristol restaurants, including Bordeaux Quay and Rockfish. There are around 30 dishes on the menu, with most priced between £3.50 and £6. From the jamon section, we kicked off with a plate of 36-month hand-carved Bellota Pata Negra (£9), which arrived as overlapping slices of crimson-hued ham fringed with meltingly delicious fat the colour of clotted cream.
What followed was a sashaying, heel-clicking procession of Spanish tapas classics. There was a precisely cooked, pearly white fillet of Cornish hake (£5.50) on a bed of warm and cosseting white beans flecked with thyme; a delicate and assertively seasoned dish of octopus, green and black olive tapenade with potato and green beans (£6) that offered plenty of chew and crunch; and outrageously rich and fibrous Rioja-braised ox cheeks with a robust rosemary and black olive reduction.
Daly’s Michelin-starred background really shows in his saucing. A stand-out stew of chestnut mushroom, red wine, garlic and rosemary (£3.50) resulted in a clash of cutlery as we fought for the last mouthful; tender, blushing Iberian pork loin (£6.50) was teamed with a punchy Romesco sauce; a juicy chicken thigh (£4.50) had been braised in sherry, the amalgam of alcohol and juices creating a silky, garlicky emulsion of a sauce. The quality didn’t dip at the desserts stage – a glass tumbler of intense, orange-spiked chocolate pot was topped with crumbs of olive oil shortbread (£4.50), and a muffin-like apple and hazelnut cake with boozy sherry sultanas demonstrated a lightness of touch in the baking department.
And, yes, the wine (from well considered and predominantly Spanish list) flowed, as did the sherry (there are eight to choose from) – but then that’s what happens when you are lucky enough to chance upon a buzzing tapas bar in full flight, and Pata Negra is most definitely one of those rare and intoxicating places.