Tapas, so the legend goes, started out as Spanish bar food, designed to keep drinkers fed and therefore sitting at the bar. Down the ages it’s been elevated to a kind of national cuisine, and now finds a home in all kinds of places that seem a very long way from your no-frills local Iberican boozer. In this instance, on a cold November weeknight, the plush Spinningfields eatery called, well, Ibérica.
It’s certainly an opulent experience. With low lighting from long-fringed shades, massive mirrors, high shelving for wine bottles and rich red leatherette seating, it’s lavish and visually striking. There’s even a lamp wearing a bullfighter’s jacket, which is just this side of disconcerting.
First up, we embarked on the Jamón Ibérico platter, something of a house speciality. It’s quite a spread and comes complete with a delicious, succulent, salty pan con tomate. The ham itself, cured for up to four years, exceeds expectations. It’s juicy, almost sweet, and seriously tasty, which bodes very well indeed.
The Ibérica menu takes in a range of traditional tapas dishes, including appealingly garlicky patatas bravas, as well as the lesser-known likes of bollín de chorizo, apparently a classic Asturian snack that’s essentially a small bread bun filled with chorizo and finished with iberico pork lardo. This is surprisingly dry for a tapas dish, and not exactly brimming with flavour, but it’s nothing less than advertised and perhaps just too subtle for for this jaded British palate. The grilled squid was a far surer bet, with ink sauce, rice and lemon oil that combined into a rich, tangy sauce and sat perfectly with the slight smokiness of the tender squid.
Elsewhere on the menu are house interpretations of contemporary Spanish dishes. Again, a seafood option impresses most. The pan-fried octopus and confit pork papada with chipotle mayonnaise prove to be a highlight of the whole meal. Not quite the Spanish answer to surf and turf, the chewy softness of the pork, the freshness of the octopus and the well-judged kick of the chipotle makes for a very satisfying stew indeed. The corn torto with cabrales – crisp corn soufflé topped with soft scrambled egg, caramelised onion and blue cheese – is another head-scratcher, as the almost dougnutty savoury soufflé is neither exactly soft nor crunchy, and the portion of cheesy scrambled egg with it is pleasant but ultimately unremarkable. Simpler, and much stronger, was the sliced Hereford ribeye steak with potato wedges and roasted vegetable purée. It’s not aiming for the stars, perhaps, but it’s certainly pleasing to the palate.
While polishing off a bottle of full-bodied, wonderfully fruity Viña Santa Marina Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah, we dived into the desserts. The caramelised Spanish rice pudding is, as the name suggests, a cross between rice pudding and a crème brûlée and it’s perfectly pleasant without being too exciting. Better is the Gloria cheesecake, a clever confection with raspberry sorbet, quince and shaved Andalucian sheep’s cheese. It’s beautifully made, with an exquisite balance between the gentle sweetness of the cheesecake itself and the saltiness of the sheep’s cheese shavings, which could pass for white chocolate if you knew no better. The zingy raspberry sorbet and tiny, highly sweet blobs of apricot conserve that came with it added a smashing accent to the whole thing.
Overall, then, Ibérica is a likeable place with agreeably laid-back atmosphere, and if the menu is sometimes trying a bit too hard to deliver the unexpected, it’s often doing perfectly fine with old favourites and variations thereof. It’s never exactly astounding, then, but yes, it’s pretty darned good.
Ibérica Spinningfields, 14-15 The Avenue, Manchester