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Restaurant review: So Salsa

When is a tapas restaurant not a tapas restaurant? asks Stephanie de Leng. Pictures: by someone else

Published on December 16th 2010.

Restaurant review: So Salsa

NEW Yorkers would call 2-4 Cook Street a “bad corner” because whatever opens there always seems to fail. It can't be argued that since the demise of the Venus Taverna, this building, at the start of Little Crosby has seen a mixed bag of fortunes.

Now however it has taken on a new life, as So Salsa, and, judging by the spirited atmosphere and the crowds, one feels its run of luck is about to change.

This tapas restaurant has been decorated in a simple and convivial style that manages to impart that all important “feel good” factor. Once you step into the inviting interior with its inspiring bar, the busy world outside is kept at bay by warm wooden Venetian blinds.

So cosy is this venue that you could be forgiven for thinking that a log fire was burning away merrily. However it was not. I could not say the same for my ears, burning from the cold and animated voices of happy fellow diners.

The house white is...Italian, so the nearest thing on the list was a lovely Spanish Sauvignon, Marques del Turia (£14.95) from the Valencia region ( admittedly not known for its great wine, but getting better by the year).

Having spent about five months in the Spanish mountains near Valencia this year I feel qualified to pronounce on this and other matters, namely, Spanish food, and I was looking forward to sampling some typical, and even innovative Hispanic fare. So imagine my surprise when the menu revealed dishes from all corners of the globe: Chinese, Indian and Thai influenced delicacies, also, Moroccan, Italian and Mexican.

As So Salsa is a new venture from the owners of the nearby Fat Italian, with its decidedly un-Italian menu, I should have not been surprised, but I was. The duck lettuce cups were so not Spanish that I was seething with resentment. That is, until I recalled a very pleasant night spent in Valencia’s best tapas bar, Sagardi, dining on exquisite tapas infused with oriental touches. On that occasion shredded ginger, lemon grass and glass noodles all married well with a heady red wine from the Priorat region.

Of course, we associate tapas with all things Spanish, but all it means is “little bites” and nowhere is it written that these bites have to be exclusively so. A good thing too, for it was the oriental offerings at So Salsa that led the way, with the Spanish dishes decidedly its Achilles’ heel.

We quaffed the Valencian white with gusto and tucked into a bowl of patatas bravas (£3.50). I have always thought it the test of a good Spanish kitchen, and sadly this portion did not pass muster. The potatoes were gluey and the tomato stuff on the top was reminiscent of thickened tomato purée with a synthetic addition of oregano. The dollop of mayo on the side lacked that additive garlicky taste I have come to love in Spain.

Likewise, the scallops and morcilla (£4.50), scallops on black pudding and puréed peas, a true Catalonian classic, were uninspired. The tiny scallops were bland, and the pudding lacked that lovely crispy exterior that makes it so moreish. So it was small cream blob on dark mush with green mush – that at least was a good bit; a bright green colour of fresh peas and nicely flavoured.

On to the duck lettuce cups (£4.95) – much more enjoyable, though the duck was a bit chewy, and the soy reduction asked for a bit more oomph. The surprise success, however was the scrambled egg and asparagus (£4.95). I have tasted this lovely dish all over north-east Spain, and when it is bad, it is terrible, and when it is sensitively made, manna. This one was light and delicate, the asparagus perfectly cooked, and the eggs melted like a mousse.

It is Christmas after all, and so we ordered a second bottle, a Torres Vina Sol (£15.95) of the Penedès region. My friend did this when I was in the loo (very nice it is in there too) or I would have had a say in the choice. Vina Sol is not my favourite, and I do not understand its price tag for it is highly commercialised. Take my advice and stick to the Valencian.

With the Torres came our main courses and this is where I began to ask myself when is a tapas restaurant not a tapas restaurant? The towering mound of floured and fried sea bass on an ample bed of Thai noodles and mixed vegetables (£10.95) was daunting to say the least. At home I would have served this to four people, but this “ración” (main plate) was destined for one.

The bass was perfect: fresh, light and moist, but even we self-confessed gourmands in crime could not finish it all. We had definitely ordered too much and I guess the good news is that So Salsa is good value for the money.

Onto the paella. My friend regretted this “ración” and was dismayed by the pile of rocket at its side, a kind of modern take on “lets put a useless sprig of parsley on top”, a favourite ruse in the 70s. It clearly did not belong there, and neither did the rice, which was soft and soggy, with no bite. Real paella is made using a round short-grain variety, much like Italian risotto - a dish, incidentally, that was originally inspired by Spain.

The rice in this paella, however, was long-grain and, one could be forgiven for thinking it was of the quick cook variety. How cruel can I get?

The flavours were not authentic, there was something peculiar about the chorizo (perhaps it needed longer cooking), and we stabbed with little enthusiasm at the plate a few times. There were none of those lovely smoky flavours that good paella should have, and I suspect the yellow colour was not from the traditional saffron ingredient as there was no hint of it in the dish. To be fair, saffron is very expensive, and I have even come across accomplished cooks in Spain adding yellow powder dye instead! As long as the right rice, and fish stock are used, with careful, slow stirring you should get an excellent result. Better still it should be cooked over a real wood fire, but that's rarely going to happen on these shores.

Before heading merrily off into the December night, we ordered a carajillo. The staff did not know what this was so I told them. It was the worst carajillo I have ever had. I hold my hands up. This is entirely my fault. I know, because I have since looked up the real recipe.

Heat a measure of brandy, or better still, cognac with a teaspoon of sugar and a few coffee grains. Set alight, then add to an espresso, and drop in a twist of lemon. It is wonderful drink best served in a small clear glass and in Spain is popular at all times of the day, especially at breakfast.

Despite all my caveats about So Salsa, this “tapas and ración” restaurant remains a welcome addition to Crosby, and the staff are more than fantastic.

The proof is that I would and will return, preferably with a gaggle of friends, and hopefully make as much noise as the table directly opposite us. Feliz Navidad y Año Nuevo!

Rating: 14/20
Breakdown: 6/10 food
4/5 service
4/5 ambience
Address: So Salsa
2-4 Cooks Road,
L23 2YB.
0151 924 9020

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect.

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