Bellota, Federal St, Auckland CBD

By John Gardner

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There was a time when, in my blinkered Anglo-Saxon way, I would have hidden a smile at the idea of Spanish food heading the popularity stakes. It was synonymous with dodgy paella and bland hake lurking under a white sauce.

Now, of course, El Bulli rules the world restaurant rankings from its stronghold in Catalonia, there are five Spanish restaurants in the top 50 and tapas seems to have taken over the planet with every drinking hole that offers a bit of tomato on bread calling itself a tapas bar. Like the bastardisation of pizza and mezze before it, global dispersion has not always done the tapas habit credit, with some versions around that the Madrilenos wouldn't recognise as food.

At Bellota Peter Gordon has set out to provide a more authentic version and if we can test it against our reasonably recent heavy patronage of the originals in Spain (is place-dropping even more irritating than name-dropping, I wonder?) he's done pretty well.

Granted, there is rather more room in the New Zealand version than in Madrid, where extremely cosy contact with one's neighbours tends to be unavoidable and the customers at the SkyCity venue are rather less of a social cross section, being heavily dominated by that sort of Aucklander who makes the breed known and loathed New Zealand-wide. But the atmosphere on a bleak midweek night was lively and very relaxed - for the customers that is.

The staff are extremely efficient and professional and didn't put a foot wrong as reasonably complicated orders kept coming throughout the course of the evening. This variety of courses is, of course, one of the reasons for the popularity of the tapas bar. There's none of that grim disappointment at the standard restaurant when you realise your choice is the chef's calamity but you're stuck with it while your companions eat the good stuff.

Here, if you're not happy with one taste you know another one will be along in a minute. In fact, I don't think any of our choices were disappointing and there was plenty to choose from. The menu runs through from bread and olives through the little bread-based pintxos and on to more than 10 tapas choices plus the tapa grande, main courses which they describe as three-quarter meals. If it's a new experience the menu is very helpful, rather better than having to point if your only Spanish is "dos cervezas".

I will spare you a full list of all we ate (although the real reason is that it would reveal the extent of our piggery). The problem with the tapas style is that another little something always looks tempting and the volume of eating, and the bill, can mount alarmingly. I had intended to try the tapa grande, the main courses which offered sirloin steak with mushrooms and asparagus or perhaps the seared tuna with orange fennel salad but we didn't get that far and weren't within sight of the desserts.

What we did have was uniformly good, from the warm roasted olives with herbs and garlic, the simple Boquerones marinated anchovies to the piquant pork and smoked paprika meatballs and the very tasty pastel de choclo, a South American equivalent of shepherds' pie with meat and chicken and corn puree topped with grilled Manchego cheese. It would have seemed a shame not to try the speciality jamon iberico de bellota, the Spanish ham from acorn-fed pigs, although the price at $38 for a few slices is, indeed alarming. Is it worth it? That's a matter of taste but it's certainly worth experiencing and Peter Gordon is right to say it's expensive anywhere.

The samples I saw in London's Borough Market were affordable only for Chelsea soccer players. The wine list is appropriately dominated by Spanish varieties and provides plenty of unfamiliar tastes for those whose normal tipple is the home-bred New Zealand kind. We started with a pleasing Lustau fino and then on to a Gurpegui primi rioja, rather softer than most rioja, a buttery Lurton rueda viera and a good Codice tempranillo.

After all this, walking out into the cold air of Federal St came as a bit of a shock but we left feeling we had tasted a very welcome warm hint of the Iberian eating out experience.

- NZ Herald

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