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Restaurants: OlA for some fine food and fun; Emma Johnson relaxes in Spanish style after some serious shopping.

Byline: Emma Johnson

THERE can be few forms of dining more sociable than Spanish tapas. So when it comes to party occasions it is undenia-bly my cuisine of choice. My most memorable tapas experience has to be a pal's 30th birthday when 15 of us piled into a tiny tapas bar in Manchester and he ordered the waiter to bring everything on the menu...twice! There are not many dining options where you can pull that trick and still be sure of finding something for everybody.

The joy of tapas is that it is food to have fun with. Choose as much or as little as you like then pick and pick until it is all gone, or until you run out of conversation/ wine.

So after a most girlie of nights out sampling the new season collection at one of Liverpool's most exclusive lingerie stores, my mother and I found ourselves at the inviting doors of La Vina on North John Street.

At 8pm the restaurant was bustling, tables busy with everyone from work parties to dating couples and a few families enjoying a taste of Spain.

A waitress showed us to our corner table and took an order fo r two cranberry and orange juices (pounds 2.50), as we were both on driving duty, and left us to ponder the restaurant's menu and interior.

Let's take the interior first. La Vina is dark and cosy with coloured tiles on the walls and floors, stripped wood tables in an assortment of shapes and a rather authentic Spanish feel. What decoration there is comes largely in the shape of port barrels and the extensive display of traditional Spanish wines and the main dining area comprises one long room on two levels and a smaller room at the back, which could easily be sectioned off for a private party.

Like the restaurant the menu at La Vina is split into different sections, charcuterie, ensaladas, vegetarian, meat and fish tapas, chef 's specialities and paella.

Spotting the paella de carne (pounds 8.65), a meat paella of chicke n and sausage, on offer I was tempted to order it but I had promised my mum, a virgin to Spanish cuisine, tapas so tapas it would be.

As we pondered the extensive range on offer our waiter Phil appeared - he deserves a name check for his excellent service and good humour all evening - and enquired whether we would likesome bread. I fear our faces betrayed our hunger. On his recommendation, we ordered the pan fresco (pounds 1.40), hunks of moreish fresh bread with Catalan and Picada sauces for dipping.

Relying on Phil's expertise once more we decided on six tapas dishes between us which heassured us should be enough: the seleccion la vina (pounds 5.95) a selection of dry cured meats and cheesesthe chorizo al sidra (pounds 3.75) Spanish sausage cooked in cider, the croquetas jamon y queso (pounds 3.95) ham and cheese croquettes, the pollo al ajo (pounds 3.75) chicken in garlic, the seta a la plancha (pounds 3.25) grilled oyster and button mushrooms with garlic (pounds 3.25) and the patatas bravas (pounds 2.75). Having fallen in love with manchego cheese on a trip to Ibiza many moons ago and being a diehard Serrano ham fan, the meat and cheese combo was always going to be a winner, but in all honesty not one of the dishesturned out to be a let-down. The mushrooms were piled high and very tasty, the potatoes - drenched in tomatoes - were a fantastic feast of carbohydrates and my mother and I almost drew blood to see how fast we could get through the gorgeously greasy and chewy chorizo before the other got to it. The croquettes which I had deliberated over and at one point almost dumped for a plate of meatballs were like kiddie food in the best possible way. Thick andsticky ham and cheese bound together and battered, they were sinfully good. Unfortunately, however, there were three of them between two of us, a problem which meant me gobbling the extra one down when my mum wasn't looking before denying all knowledge and silently resolving to let her have more of the chori-zo There were two minor grumbles though with the tapas, the chicke n in garlic was a little boney, leading me if not my more patient mother to abandon it, and the rather hefty draught that had been blowing across our table all evening succeeded in cooling all our food a little faster than we would have liked. A matter which we solved by eating all the hot stuff first.

When I took the latter issue up with our waiter, he was most apologetic and explained it was simply the air conditioning necessitated by some of the more flamboyant flaming dishes available.

Although it looked a lot, taking our time to work through the tapas had amazingly left room fo r dessert, something I was most pleased about when I spotted pastel de trufa de chocolat (pounds 3.95) which translated into one of the best chocolate mousses I have ever eaten on the sweet menu.

My mother was equally take n by the natilla con pasas el ron carmela (pounds 3.95) - better known in these parts as egg custard - and insisted on forcing its "wonderful" flavours upon me despite my loathing the dish since childhood. One incredibly good value bill and a couple of jokes from our lovely waiter later and it was not so much adios but hasta luego La Vina

La Vina, North John Street, Liverpool city centre, 0151 255 1401.

Service: Excellent, some of the nic-est staff in the city

Smoking: Allowed. Disabled access: Very well arranged

with lift to raised dining area. Bill: pounds 35.40

Value: Excellent, it is really up to you how extravagant you want to be

hereemmajohnson@dailypost.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

The dark and cosy La Vina: the decor gives the place an authentic Spanish feel; and, below right, the bland, less inspiring exterior Pictures: TONY KENWRIGHT
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Nov 25, 2005
Words:1014
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