Norwich: La Tasca

DAVID WAKEFIELD For several years Norwich has had a branch of La Tasca, the Spanish tapas bar chain, in a pleasant setting in Tombland. It’s lively, entertaining and much in demand for celebratory evenings, so don’t expect the music to be of the “background” variety.


Going out for a drink is one of life's little pleasures, and so far as we Brits are concerned there has long been a tradition of eating with one's pint. We're not talking full meals here - more the practice of the snack to accompany the drink. Delicacies like the potato crisp, the pickled egg, the salted peanut… epicurian delights for the dedicated drinker to savour while not detracting from the main purpose of the visit.

Sadly, this has proved insufficient in some instances, with nary a sighting of a pork scratching amid a welter of baguettes and ciabattas, a world which the lover of decent beer keeps at arm's length.

I sometimes wonder if the Spanish feel the same way about the explosion of tapas bars in this country? What has become an immensely trendy way to eat had its origins in humble Spanish surroundings. The concept originated many years ago among farm labourers who, after a heavy day in the fields, popped into their local for a drink. The innkeeper would place a slice of bread on top of the glass to keep the flies out, and this would be supplemented by other foods - like sausages and cured meats - which were then eaten to accompany the drink. The Spanish word “tapa” means lid, you see.

This may still be the case in rural areas. But what I do know is that tapas bars are now thick on the ground, over here as well as in Spain, and, while loosely based on that original concept, are as far away from those humble country boozers as Posh Spice is from Primark.

The only connection is that modern tapas consist of small portions of food. Serve these as near as possible to the real thing, chuck in some manufactured Spanish atmosphere, and you have a winning combination.

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For the last four years or so, Norwich has had a branch of La Tasca, the Spanish tapas bar chain, in a pleasant setting in Tombland. Yes, it is formulaic, but it's a place that seems to have carved out its own special kind of ambience. We have been there several times, either as a couple, or part of a large and noisy gathering. It works both ways… but is it authentic? I don't know, and I have to say that I don't really care. Having also eaten in a tapas bar in La Rambla, in Barcelona, I found both experiences equally enjoyable.

The Norwich La Tasca is lively and entertaining. It is much in demand for celebratory evenings, so don't expect the music to be of the “background” variety, nor the conversation hushed.

First-timers may be taken aback by the size of the food choice on offer. But staff are helpful and patient - so take time to study it carefully.

We generally ask for a drink and a couple of starters - in this instance the Pan Fresco (fresh bread with extra virgin olive oil and delicious sherry vinegar, at £1.40) and a bowl of Aceitunas Mixtas (mixed olives, £2.15) - in order to wade through the menu.

The drinks list is comprehensive and Spanish-influenced. Beers like San Miguel and Cruzcampo are available, although we favoured a really nice white Rioja, the Campo Viejo Viura, at £14.25. Wines are available by the glass, too, by the way.

We have found that most enjoyable way to eat at La Tasca is to order, say, half a dozen dishes and then share them. Thus, we ordered Pollo y Limon (£3.85) boneless chicken thighs cooked in white wine, lemon juice and thyme, Paella Valenciana (£3.50) paella rice with mixed seafood and chicken, Tortilla de Chorizo y Pimentos (£2.85) the traditional potato and Spanish omelette with chorizo and red peppers, and Berenjenas Gratinadas (£3.15) fresh aubergine with cheese, tomato and herbs; plus two salads, the Ensalada de Tomate y Queso de Cabra (£3.15) with tomato, goats cheese and olive oil vinaigrette, and the Ensalada de Espinacas y Aguecate (£3.15) a salad of baby spinach and avocado chunks mixed with cucumber and onion in a vinaigrette dressing.

It's a little bit chaotic, as everything arrives at once. But that is half the fun of this type of eating out and you soon get into the routine of swapping a piece of Pollo y Limon for a fork-full of Paella Valenciana. The food is prompt, nicely served, tasty and surprisingly filling. It will also not faze those who are cautious about food they might suspect of being spicy or over-flavoured.

There is much to enjoy in an evening at La Tasca, even before you get your food and drink. The staff are young and enthusiastic, as well as attentive. The décor will revive memories of visits to Spain, and the little touches, like paper napkins in Spanish national red and yellow, sit well with an attention to detail that goes well beyond offering sangria on the drinks list. Best of all, it's great value, as our bill, with wine and coffee, came to under £40.

Hasta La Vista, La Tasca! And, in Arnie's words, I'll be back.

t La Tasca, Tombland, Norwich; 01603 776420;

t Do I need to book? If you're a couple you can generally get in, even on a Saturday night. But larger groups should book in advance. La Tasca offers special menus for parties, by the way. Check on the website.

t Is it suitable for vegetarians? Yes - a large proportion of the dishes on offer are OK for veggies, and the menu is coded to indicate which are which.

t Does it cater for children? There is no children's menu, although youngsters of a more adventurous bent might enjoy it either early in the evening, or at lunchtime.

t What about disabled access? La Tasca in Norwich is on two levels, but certainly the ground floor is wheelchair-accessible. Check with the restaurant.

t Where can I park? Try the Monastery car park (off Elm Hill) a few minutes' walk away; or St Andrew's, which is slightly further afield, but with far more capacity.