My friend is so excited about this little tapas restaurant on Cowley Road that she recently visited twice in one day (can you stalk a restaurant?), so I'm pretty keen to try it. Uncertain about our chances of securing a table, we turn up at 6.15pm on a Thursday evening and cozy up on stools at the bar.
We’re already agreed that most food is best enjoyed in the form of lots of small plates, offering a stimulating variety of texture and flavour, facilitating a convivial atmosphere of sharing and interaction, and evoking an adrenaline-inducing worry that someone else is going to pinch the last bit of chorizo. Restrained over-ordering is essential to ensure that while this fear adds savour to the meal, it never risks becoming a reality - along with an ensuing Rioja-fuelled sausage-hoarding punch-up.
This really is a restaurant to get excited about. Small and simple, it bustles with activity and chatter. The staff are relaxed and charming, and the food, of course, is fabulous. We order six dishes and some olives. The bread looks good, but we’re not going to waste valuable stomach capacity on it when there’s such an exciting range of dishes on offer. Particularly delicious is the tangy beetroot borani - pickled purple and golden roots with walnuts and feta, and the gorgeous melt-in-the-mouth chickpeas with butternut squash and tahini. While many of the dishes seem quite complex, the chef knows when a lily doesn't need gilding. The chorizo and harissa tostada is just that - splendidly sumptuous with oil and spice and requiring nothing further. Aubergine in pomegranate molasses is crisp on the outside and airy within, and the same, curiously, is true of the slow-roasted belly pork, where the fat has melted away to leave delicious little bites in garlicky mojo verde. The mackerel with ajo blanco, a little salty for me, is the weakest of the dishes we try, but it's still pretty good and there's nothing we ordered that I wouldn't very happily have again. Prices are around £4-8 a plate with a couple of outliers, and while our total bill came to £70 it could have been a fair bit less with more restrained wine choices.
The menu is the perfect size with about 30 items. It feels like there's a lot of choice and plenty to keep going back for, but the perfect simplicity of the experience isn't compromised by having too much to think about. Eating at the bar makes me feel chic and cosmopolitan (I am neither of these things) but is conversationally very risky as it feels intimate but is of course nothing of the sort. The barman can hear every scandalous revelation and uncharitable character assessment, as can the people at the table three feet behind you. Best keep your gossip clean and (relatively) kind; this is a small town. Another note of caution: while it's a smart move to come early to be sure of a seat, remember that cracking open the wine just after 6.15pm is a decision to take with care. So why not order extra tapas to soak it all up?