“Tapas is all about context.”

Sage words pronounced by my companion as he put down a cocktail stick, which had until recently borne a fat olive, and picked up his gin and tonic. By which he meant: sitting in the sunshine on a Friday lunchtime having a delicious meal instead of being at work is great.

But he had a broader point, too. Tapas is social food. It’s the sort of cuisine that doesn’t work without the right setting; chattering diners, friendly-yet-bustling service and, ideally, sunshine.

Happily, we had all three at Liverpool’s Salt House Tapas. We also had a fine meal. Let’s start with the basics. The sourdough was pleasingly chewy, the aforementioned Gordal olives plump and sprinkled with rock salt, the padron peppers hot and bitter and moreish, the Serrano flavoursome. A few marks deducted for the Manchego which was relatively young and therefore mild, and was just a tad too fridge-cold on arrival to be the right companion for the ham, although it had warmed up and improved by the time we got round to polishing it off.

Salt House TapasAnd then to the cooking. Sizzling prawns with garlic and chilli came highly recommended and were tender and tasty plucked straight from their dish of olive oil. However, these six medium-sized crustaceans were the same price (£7.95) as a sizeable basket of crispy fried calamari, fish and prawns with aioli, the latter representing better value for money and certainly more bite per buck. This Malaga fried fish was only lightly battered, soft and fresh with a squeeze of lemon and – now this is one of the more pretentious things I will ever write – reminded me of a fisherman’s café we once found outside of San Sebastián, which is all you could really want from a tapas plate. Yet the best dish of the day involved no marine life.

One of the fun things about the now-omnipresent small plate is that the requirement to order several things per person allows you to take a punt without risking your entire meal. Our wild card was torched figs with roasted grapes and honey ricotta on sourdough (£6.50), and it was a card I will play again. Not too sweet as we had feared thanks to a well-pitched balsamic dressing yet full of sunshine, this was the perfect dish for a summer lunch hour.

Sorbet, Salt House TapasIt perhaps didn’t need following with an enormous lemon cheesecake (£5.50), which was oozingly creamy but needed cutting through with something sharper than the accompanying lemon curd and raspberry sorbet. Happily, that was his choice. Mine was vanilla ice cream with Pedro Ximenez sherry and expresso (£5.95) – essentially a Spanish version of an Italian affogato topped with the pleasingly crunchy addition of sugared almonds – which was exactly the right combination of sweet and punch to cut through the oil-rich savoury courses. Enormous cheesecake notwithstanding, we left without feeling weighed down or greasy in the way that tapas can leave you and, despite our feast, mildly jealous of those around us having what looked to be an excellent value lunch deal of three plates and bread for £12.95.

We shall return to try that one before long, hoping only that someone has by then scrapped the woefully naff signs on the loo doors. But that is a minor point. Salt House has some high-profile tapas competition in Liverpool in the form of Neon Jamon and Lunya which have taken much of the limelight in recent years.

On this form, it well deserves its own place centre-stage.

By Fran Yeoman

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