Viva España I’ve tried tapas before on a couple of occasions and I must say I didn’t enjoy the experience. Although I was clearly tucking into good stuff, I didn’t really get the hang of it.
I think it had something to do with being offered a bit of this and a bit of that when all I actually wanted to do was tuck into a big, juicy steak or a bowl brimming over with an interesting pasta dish.
However, it’s a different matter with my wife. She’s a devotee of anything with even a hint of the Mediterranean, especially when it is smothered in garlic. So I think it was her influence which prompted me to make the rather odd choice of trying out the Don Miguel tapas bar and restaurant in Neston.
The restaurant’s location amid the characterful Georgian buildings of Parkgate Road, just a couple of Flamenco steps from the town centre, is redolent of the old town area of Barcelona where I had one of my earlier, unsatisfactory, tapas experiences.
The similarities continue as you enter the Grade II four-storey listed building dating back to 1744 via a small courtyard, complete with ornate wrought-iron gateway, and ascend a small flight of stairs to the main entrance.
Stepping inside, you enter a small dining area, with three or four tables arranged around an original inglenook fireplace, which is all tasteful lighting and wooden floors.
The sole waitress on duty – a very helpful young American or Canadian woman – was busy taking the order of a group of diners, so we were perfectly happy to wait until she finished.
However, we didn’t have to wait long as a gent with his head sticking through the serving hatch of the kitchen at the end of another small room off to our right had spotted us coming in and called out to us to head down into the basement, which we did by descending a small spiral staircase.
Down there are two rooms, the front one a small bar area with three or four tables and chairs and the back one housing a bar which, again, put me in mind of a bodega in Barcelona or Madrid.
We were welcomed by the man behind the bar, who was clearly one of the proprietors, and asked what we would like to have as an appetiser.
Getting into the spirit of things, my wife said a glass of riocha would be nice. The man behind the bar agreed that it would – but said that all they had on offer was red or white wine.
This was our first taste of the informality of the place, which was not at all unpleasant but rather a refreshing departure from the more regimented atmosphere of the chain eateries which seem to dominate every town these days.
Actually, my wife tells me that house red was very acceptable. Regrettably, as the designated driver, I wouldn’t be finding out for myself. ‘Make mine an orange juice, please.’
Another aspect of tapas dining I hadn’t liked came back to me as our transatlantic friend brought us the menu.
In Barcelona, I had been bedazzled and bemused by the vast array of goodies on offer – all, of course, in Catalan. Anyway, I recall that I made completely the wrong choices while everyone else tucked into a myriad of succulent delicacies.
If that had been Britain, I would have had to call in for fish and chips on the way home, so empty had I been left.
So was history about to repeat itself here? No, thankfully it was not because the relatively brief menu was carefully split into meat, fish and vegetable-based dishes – all with a full explanation attached.
This time, therefore, ordering was a doddle. Out went our summons for a varied selection, including prawns in garlic at £4.50, patatas bravas (potato wedges fried in a tangy covering) at £2.50, chorizo sausage slices at £3.50, mushrooms also at £2.50, meatballs at £3.50 and, from the ‘specials’ menu, a particularly delicious fish kebab – chunks of salmon and swordfish – at £8.50.
Within about half an hour, everything was delivered to our table in small dishes, together with a generous basketful of freshly-cut white bread.
I made particularly short work of the smoky chorizos while my wife hastily cleared the mouth-watering prawns in garlic – I told you she was a slave to the bulb.
The meatballs were possibly more to my taste but my wife laid greater claim to the fish kebab, what with its abundance of garlic sauce.
In fact, things went down so rapidly and so well that I soon began to worry that we hadn’t ordered enough and, Oliver Twist-like, I asked for more.
I almost expected our waitress to do a Mr Bumble and repeat my request incredulously back to me. But, of course, the answer was ‘no problem’ and within 10 minutes we were served with the extra dish I had ordered – a huge and wonderfully seasoned hunk of swordfish, accompanied by a basketful of garlic bread.
As soon as the reinforcements arrived, I knew they would not be necessary – but we got to grips with them anyway, adding another £8.50 to the bill.
Actually, the swordfish was the best of the lot and I only regret I wasn’t man enough to completely finish it.
After this eyes-bigger-than-bellies episode, we were almost ashamed to order dessert. But in the interests of yourselves, dear readers, we went on to pick out some very tasty puds.
There didn’t appear to be anything written down, so it was up to the waitress to recite back the full list of available sweets.
Before reaching our table, she did this first for the party of four dining next to us. And believing a bit of illustration was in order, we waited until they’d had their desserts delivered to peek over and see what the best.
The young chap to my right was devouring what was in effect a creme brulee tart – we never did find out its official name – covered with cream. I asked for one of these to be brought to me, while my wife opted for the New York cheesecake.
It is in their nature that cheesecakes, however well put together, can sometimes be a bit bland and, according to my wife, this was the case with her specimen.
What made it seem even blander for her was that I was already waxing lyrical about how delicious my tart was turning out to be.
War drums cold be heard in the distance, so a sweet-swap was in order. Actually, the cheesecake wasn’t too bad at all but the tart was better. Still, it had to be given up in the interests of marital accord.
As my wife ordered coffee, I decided to take a short tour of the very interesting building.
Its owners have allocated a different purpose to each of the three floors available to customers.
The cellar has that cosy bar, while the main restaurant area on the first floor, capable of seating 50 people, includes the Cuban room, home to an espresso bar serving fresh Italian coffee.
Up on the third floor is a chill-out space comprising a very comfortable-looking lounge area furnished with some traditional sofas and decor.
Next to this was another small dining area.
Trying to recreate a suitably atmospheric tapas restaurant in a more modern concrete shop block wouldn’t work nearly so well as it does here.
Back at our table, I found my wife was finishing her authentic Italian coffee – the perfect end to an enjoyable and very different evening.
Who knows, I might even give tapas a try again – maybe even that place in Barcelona.
Don Miguel tapas bar and restaurant, 10 Parkgate Road, Neston CH64 9XE
0151 353 8222
Price (for two, two courses): Food £40.50, drink £7.30
Best thing: Authentic atmosphere in charming 1744 listed building.
Worst thing: Having to spend the evening there without being able to have a proper drink.
Would suit: Anyone with a taste for things relaxed and Mediterranean.
Wouldn’t suit: Anyone expecting regimented chain eatery.