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La Tasca

Posted on 24th October 2007. No Comment

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We’re back in Durham and, as the chilly air suggests, it’s about time we gear up to face the winter months ahead. However, a new, sunny-looking restaurant on the Bailey might be able to help numb the icy pain.

Spanish restaurant La Tasca has arrived, replacing the rather English Hogs Head with an eatery designed for casual snacking or Espagnol-style feasting.

Filled with colourful mosaic-style tiling, lively Mediterranean music, leather benches adorned with bright cushions and warm terracotta walls decorated with pottery, La Tasca could well become the restaurant of the season as the dark nights draw in. At the very least, the large and varied menu could help fill the gut as the temperature lowers and the appetite increases.

The restaurant’s dishes consist of Spain’s signature meals: Paella and tapas. The former – a rice-based dish, for those who have not yet experienced Spanish fare – features heavily on the menu. You can go for the traditional seafood version (Paella de Marisco at £9.75 per person; minimum two people) or Paella with chicken and seafood or spicy chorizo sausage (both £9.75; minimum two people). There’s also a veggie option, for a quid less.

Tapas for two
My partner and I decided to bypass the rice dishes for the tapas option. These mini-meals – all dishes of starter proportions – are designed to be shared between diners so that each person may experience several different tastes.

The origin of the concept of modern-day tapas is not known, but La Tasca chooses to believe the tale of farmers who used to put a slice of bread on top of their drink down the pub in order to protect it from flies. As the story goes, the innkeepers would put little snacks on top of the bread – such as sausage or olives – to make the snack more interesting for their customers. And thus, tapas was born.

However, any concept of a ‘little snack’ was lost on my partner and I. We took the tapas golden rule – ‘a little bit of everything’ – quite literally. We ordered the ‘fish taster menu’ (£19.95 for two people) and settled back, ready to eat like pigs (or ‘cerdos’ if you want to get into true Spanish spirit).

With tapas it is generally recommended that you order about three dishes each as a starting point, then increase or decrease the according to how hungry you are. The fish menu came with eight tasty treats included. And we tacked an order of olives on the side, to go with our drinks.

Of course, the only thirst-quenching option in a Spanish restaurant is traditional beverage Sangria. I opted for a glass of the red wine-based, fruit-laden drink and was pleasantly surprised. No cheapo wine here, and the fruit chunks were fresh. A bit pricey at £4.25 a glass though.

Before we’d had much time to sip and nibble our food arrived on a platter. Too hungry to feel self-conscious about the mass of dishes sitting on our table, we tucked straight in.

Feast feedback
As many tapas restaurants go, we found the dishes varied in quality; kind of what we expected, given there were so many different things on offer.

Starting safe, we helped ourselves to the generous portion of Spanish potato and onion omelette (Tortilla Espanola – £3.35 on the main menu). Despite it looking like it had the potential to be a stodge-fest à la college, it was actually a very tasty, light dish, which was not over-powered by its onion base.

Moving on, we helped ourselves to some battered king prawns with garlic mayonaise (Gambas Gardinas – £4.25) which were tasty, but limited to four pieces. We also couldn’t shake the idea that the gloopy white mayo looked like something we should’ve had on a portion of 3am-bought cheesy chips from Mrs Dirty.

Staying with the seafood theme, it was Calamari next (£3.75). Again, they were battered (and accompanied by the Dirty-looking mayo), but were very light (no industrial deep-frying) and garnished with nice herbs and rock salt.

It was hereon that the spicy Spanish foods started to get some cold feedback from us. The fried potato in spicy sauce (Patatas Bravas – £2.75) was…ok. But that’s about it. My partner observingly commented that the tomato sauce tasted and looked a bit like a school-dinner sauce.

The small portion of vegetarian paella was edible, but it looked a lot like instant rice from a packet and it tasted just as bland.
Then the mushrooms were, well, mushroomy. They were meant to be flavoured with garlic and herbs, but you couldn’t taste the seasoning at all. They were nice enough, but it was hard not to think you could’ve just wacked a few fungi in a pan at home. They certainly wouldn’t be worth the £3.25 that were charging for the individual dish on the main menu. It also didn’t help that as they got cold they became more Français than Espagnol. Cold slithers of mushroom was rather like swallowing snails; slimy and unpleasant.

Next, we tackled the last fish dish of the day; more battered seafood (with the customary mayo, of course). By this point, it’s fair to say we were getting tired of the deep-fried goods, and it was starting to feel like La Tasca had a bit of a ‘stick to what we know’ policy. There was an alternative prawn dish on the main menu for the same price, yet without the battered element, and we couldn’t help but feel this would have made a better, more varied choice for the set meal. The dish in front of us was nice enough, except for one part: the whitebait. Why anybody would want to experience whole little fishies, battered, eyes included, is incomprehensible to me. ‘Fried soil’ comes to mind, if I had to compare the taste to something.

The very last dish on our taster menu – the spinach and avocado salad – I couldn’t possibly comment on…because they didn’t bring it. Yep, they forgot one of the foods listed. That’s £3.35 worth of greens we missed out on. Very unimpressive, but we were too full by the time we noticed.

Overall view
Having stuffed our bellies with Spanish food, it’s fair to say we were ready for a siesta at the end of it all. We were tired and satisfied – in the sense that we were full-up and ready for home – but the meal overall would only get a so-so rating.

We couldn’t help feeling a little sulky after our absent salad and the meal was definitely a comfort food experience rather than a Spanish sensation.

La Tasca is a chain, and it’s good at what it does, but don’t go there if you’re hoping for authentic dishes of the highest quality. If you’ve done the real tapas experience, La Tasca probably isn’t going to tantalise. The atmosphere was friendly and warm, and the cushioned chairs were comfortable, but it didn’t make up for the few dodgy dishes we experienced.

The total bill came to £28.90. Reasonable enough, given how much food we had. Three peckish ladies could definitely opt for the two-person taster without going away hungry.

As might have been expected, the overall meal summary would be ‘hit and miss’. But I’d personally give the restaurant a miss unless your aim is to (over)indulge on carb-laden food.

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  • Neil said:

    Pretty much agree with all of the comments. We went on a Friday lunchtime 9th November and the food was average at best, as for the prawns without batter, stay away, trust me. The paella was re heated, the ribs cold and the food had a total mass produced and left to stand before being whacked in the microwave feel.
    The restuarant needs to learn the idea of tapas, a leisurely relaxing meal, not everything lashed down in front of you within 5 minutes of ordering. The waitress was annoying rather than friendly, in the end we had to ask her to leave us alone to actually have a conversation. The place was fairly empty yet we felt on a hectic timescale to be fed, and out.
    All of the dishes we tried, including the meatballs, a recommendation from the waitress were disappointing and a bill of almost £40 for 5 dishes plus 3 drinks left us feeling less than satisfied.
    Take a tip, there are much better, less expensive restuarants in Durham now, La tasca needs to learn lessons quickly or it will soon become another distant memory.
    We will not be returning.

  • Alex said:

    I didn’t even bother staying for a meal as I was stood inside next to the door waiting to be seated for at least three minutes without any staff noticing or acknowledging my presence — So I left. I don’t think I’ll be going back either after reading these reviews.

  • Jason Smith said:

    Think you guys just got them on a bad day, have been in twice in the past week and the food and the service were excellent. Never write a restaurant off too early, there are always bound to be teething problems!

    I will definately be back for more and would recommend it to anybody.