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While looking up the phone number of the Basque Kitchen online, I stumbled on a reader review. Although the writer said the food was great, she claimed the service, especially from Carol, the maitre d', was terrible: "she pushes in, too bossy ... that sort of thing". I was fully expecting Ms Grumpy.
Instead, we were delighted with the service, especially from Carol. Admittedly she did push me to have a glass of wine, bringing three different Spanish whites for me to taste. But that was later. We had started our evening with a jug of spiced, sweetish sangria, served at the bar, while chatting to the barwoman who turned out to be the lovely Carol. Unusually for a tapas bar, Basque Kitchen takes bookings, which is a bonus. So we relaxed at the bar while waiting for our table to become free.
The decor is basic. Bare wooden tables and chairs, a dripping red candelabra straight out of Harry Potter and a full view of the chefs slaving away in a tiny kitchen. Our friendly young waiter suggested we'd need around one and a half larger tapas plates or "racions" each, so we started by ordering five dishes. They arrived, as she warned us, as fast as the kitchen could produce them, in no particular order.
First up were the potato croquettes, of which we immediately realised we would need at least two servings. Shaped like big eggs, the croquettes were crisp and crunchy on the outside and creamy and tasty on the inner. Strong cheese, plenty of ham: a great start.
Next up was the red cabbage. This was warm, with a handful of crisp, sliced almonds, blue cheese crumbled on top and tangy dressing that had us vying for the last few shreds.
The prawn special served in a wine sauce was good without being outstanding and there were five fat and juicy examples, so we could have one each. But we were mourning for the chorizo with prawn racion, which was sadly off the menu because they'd run out of chorizo. So on we munched, with a procession of delicious tastes and textures to squabble over. The pork belly with crisp crackling and melty underside was an outstanding example of what's become an art - cooking the pork so slowly the fat melts into the flesh. The lamb cutlets were juicy and tender and the special veal shin was again an outstanding version of the slow-cooking genre. Even the fried cauliflower was fought over.
The only thing we didn't enjoy were the sardines. They looked great, large and sleek, lying entwined on the plate, but when that unmistakeable taste hit my lips it was all over. Even Mary, who said she loved them, needed a clean plate before she could continue with the other tapas.
Meanwhile Carol continued to hover over us with jokes, water and wine refills. Along with the younger waiters who were well used to giving their own back, Carol helped lift our evening into a fun and frivolous occasion we'll remember for some time. On to dessert. We weren't disappointed. The churros with chocolate dipping sauce were perfect. Brian's chocolate mousse, with berries and almonds on top, scored 10 out of 10. The special panna cotta was unfortunately over-springy and jelly-like. But the fruit salad of strawberries, pomegranate seeds, raspberries and mint with a raspberry sauce, made on the spot as a non-dairy option, was sensational.
The Basque Kitchen is a welcome corner of fun, personality, attitude and fine food in a place where so many restaurants are formulaic and overpriced. It's also inexpensive and close to the Rialto. We'll be back.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $315 for five hungry people. Ten large tapas or racions, bread, four desserts, a jug of sangria, a bottle of Beronia Reserva and four single glasses.
Wine list: Very interesting, very Spanish, with just the odd local favourite, plus spirits.
Verdict: Fun and frivolous, the Basque Kitchen serves delicious tapas and interesting wine at sensible prices. Recommended.By Carroll du Chateau Email Carroll