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Feeling no Spain; Look out your souvenir castanets and savour the Spanish scran at The TapasTree in Edinburgh.

WHEN I heard I was to do a review of a tapas restaurant, I thought: `I've been to Ibiza, I could do that.'

But from what I remembered of my trip, which was mainly devoted to savouring the club scene, Spanish cuisine was spookily similar to our Scottish scran - fish and chips, steak pie and chips, chicken Kiev and chips ... one night I even had a Chinese meal.

However, as I found out at one of Edinburgh's top Spanish restaurants, The Tapas Tree (`tapas' meaning half portion, `tree' meaning, erm, big wooden leafy thing), there is a lot more to Spanish scoff than deep fried lard.

My first impression on arrival was that it looked tiny. Clean, bright, welcoming, but wee.

But as my auld maw used to say: "It's no' often you're right, but you're wrang again." And I was.

It is, in fact, a big place. The interior boasts three separate troughing rooms - two small ones and a large basement area. And they were all full, it was heaving. And noisy. The air was buzzing with gabby diners, clinking cutlery and Spanish guitars. Not a bad start.

My two friends and I were shown by the owner to room number two through the back and seated at a big table by the wall (the walls were painted in terraccota tones - "very Spanish" thought Karen, the expert!)

One of the waiting staff came over and, in a thick Mediterranean accent, offered us ... something.

I being the great and knowledgeable one that I am replied: "Yes, thank you, that would be lovely." She could have been bringing us chilled monkey brains for all I knew, but to my relief she returned with some `pan casero' (thick brown bread to you and me) and a bowl of marinated olives.

We horsed in. A tip, though, if you do give The Tapas Tree a go; eat only one piece of bread, it's a meal in itself.

If you bought a loaf of it up the street you'd probably get done for carrying an offensive weapon.

From an extensive list (more than 20 varieties of wine) we ordered two bottles; a cheeky little Chardonnay for my friends and a polite litre of mineral water for myself.

I was lucky to be served mine with some ice, but the wine was left to thaw in an empty bucket - maybe it's a Spanish custom ...

Friend number one (Nikki) gave her impressions of the wine: "Aye, it's a'right, like. Hmm, yes, very nice."

I took her word for it. My mineral water was, eh, wet. I confess I'm not a natural spring water connoisseur - one glass of water tastes the same as the next to me.

So, on to the starters.

There's a wee bit at the bottom of the menu which says: `For a greater appreciation of tapas we recommend two or three dishes per person', but that's if you go for them as a main course.

There's also the `plato principal', the blackboard specialities, to choose from (all priced at pounds 12.50) so, with that in mind, we went for tapas as a starter and chose one each.

In the great debate between meat or veg I embraced both arguments and had `liallos sevillanos' (rolled cabbage leaves stuffed with lamb and garlic), while my mates picked `costilla al horno' (roasted spare rib with honey and thyme) and `pollo al ajillo'(roasted chicken with garlic).

Thankfully the menu has a translation of each item as my Spanish pronunciation isn't that hot.

Had there been no English explanation, I'm sure we would have ended up with egg and chips thrice.

The starters were all served in little round dishes and they did the job. It was just enough to give us an idea of what we'd get if we'd taken what the menu advised.

Next up, the `plato principals'. Between us, we ordered sirloin steak with cabrales cheese (a Spanish blue), spinach and mushroom tartlet with asparagus spears and manchego cheese (a Spanish parmesan) and breast of chicken coated in almonds and grain mustard - and we agreed to mix `n' match the different dishes.

The meals arrived, and call me a bit old school, but I kept expecting them to bring over a selection of vegetables too, but nae joy.

The steak and chicken were served with a dod of roast potatoes and the tartlet sat island- like in the middle of the plate.

Oh well, when in Spain ... I must say the chicken was faultless. It was melt- in-the-mouth material, and the almonds and grain mustard worked well together.

The tartlet was lovely, too. I've never tasted manchego (or even heard of it, for that matter) but it flavoured the dish throughout, and the consistency of the spinach, mushrooms and pastry was perfectly smushy - a good comfort food.

But the steak ... we had asked for it well-done.

Personally, I can't handle any meat which hasn't been thoroughly cooked.

(I remember hearing a guy in a restaurant, when asked how he'd like his T- bone, reply: "Just break off its horns and dicht its a**e". Ugh!)

But, for me, the steak was a bit over-done; cremated, in fact. It was big enough and meaty enough, just, eh, burnt. On another note, the `dod' of tatties were a wee bit bland and quite dry.

Maybe a bit more sauce would have helped.

In general, though, the main courses passed the mark, but I'd still liked to have seen a seasonal selection for my dosh.

After devouring all that grub we were full up but, being conscientious restaurant reviewers, we felt it was our duty to have a sweet.

After much thought we were brought three stoaters - dark chocolate mousse, lemon sorbet and `brazo de gitano' (which, as we all know, is a light roulade of lemon and vanilla). We scoffed them all down in three minutes flat. They were absolutely delicious.

Finding a final two inches of space for coffee and mints (Foxes glaciers-nothing but the best) we sat back in a smug, fat way, only breaking the satisfied silence with a small groan or maybe that came from the chairs

The Tapas Tree offers a great selection of Spanish fare. It also caters for large parties, private functions and has an extensive banquet menu.

And if you are really after a taste of Spain, the downstairs part of the operation is host to live Spanish music and dancers every Thursday night.

The atmosphere, the decor and the service is excellent and, apart from the odd hiccup, the food is, too.

It's not cheap, though. Our bill for the evening was pounds 90 (and they over-charged me for an extra main course; I was too Spained-up to notice).

For a special occasion it is well worth a visit, though. Alternately you could nip over to Ibiza for a fish supper ...

Hasta luego, senorita I'M so glad Karen and her friends enjoyed the food and atmosphere at The Tapas Tree.

I like to think of our little establishment as a corner of Edinburgh dedicated to introducing Scots to the joys of Spanish culture ... such as eating after 8 o'clock, staying out all evening, drinking and talking with friends. Have you people ever heard of maana?

In keeping with the authentic ambience, our staff come from all over Spain while chef Duncan McIntyre hails from some place called Inverkeithing, wherever that is. His Spanish, however, is much better than his English.

The bread is a speciality but if you wanted a loaf you need go no further than downstairs. Pan Casero means home- made bread. As for the empty wine bucket, you must have ordered extra dry.

To answer your comment about blandness, we use very little salt in our cooking. That way, customers can add seasoning to suit their own palate.

I'm sorry the steak wasn't up to your expectations but after 20 years catering for British tastes, I've learned to translate well done as `burnt'. Karen is obviously a lady who enjoys her meat.

Veg, too, is a British fixation, but it will be a turn-up for the books the day we serve it separately.

It was astute of you to notice the mints. I have chipped them from a glacier in the Pyrenees and have them flown in fresh every day. Little touches make all the difference.

I must agree with you about the bill; three starters, three main dishes, three desserts, two bottles of wine, coffees, mineral water, mints and all for less than pounds 90 - where did you think you were - Spain?

Restaurant TIPS The Tapas Tree, 1 Forth Street, Edinburgh, 0131 556 7118

Bill for 3: pounds 90(including wine and mistake! )

House wine: pounds 9.90

Opening hours: 11am-11pm - "We close when you choose to leave!"
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Dunbar, Karen
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 31, 1999
Words:1466
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