VERY soon the Lloyd family will be traveling to sunny Spain, y viva Espana, if not to chat with a matador, but we hope to eat patatas bravas through the score. To get in the holiday spirit, we visited a cool cabana that recently opened in Bishop Auckland Market Place.
It’s so new that it doesn’t even have its name on the outside of its very anonymous building, despite standing next to the Spanish Gallery, which announces its presence in very large letters.
Naturally part of the Auckland project the city is taking on, tapas restaurant El Castillo aims to combine the taste of Spain with locally sourced ingredients, particularly from the walled gardens of Auckland Castle.
It is housed in the former Bishop Barrington School, which has been stylishly decorated with tasteful tiles that may have come from the Alhambra Palace in Andalucia. When we arrived I wrote in my notes that it was “bright, clean and reverberant”. Then a table of six moved in next to us. They weren’t noisy but since the place was full it was difficult to even hear what the waitress was saying to us.
Many tapas restaurants have a menu as long as the airport check-in line, but El Castillo’s is fairly short. It offers four meat platters, four fish platters and six potato and vegetable dishes, priced between £6.50 and £9. The four of us were advised to order between eight and ten plates, which meant we would pay around £15 per head for a main course – about the level of a main course in a good restaurant these days.
The beauty of tapas is that you can try many different flavors. The disadvantage of tapas is that the plates come all the way from the kitchen and in the chaos of glasses, jugs and dishes you quickly try to stack all the plates.
The order brought back memories of our last pre-pandemic Spanish holiday. The Spaniards love their croquettes in a way that has never caught on in Britain, and the word ‘albondigas’ is always a mystery: how can it mean ‘meatball’?
We ordered all four meat dishes, and the first to arrive was what I thought was the best dish of the day: the ham croquetas (£7.25). Crispy on the outside, but packed with deliciously creamy béchamel and a hint of ham on the inside.
The three albondigas (£7.50) were good, hearty affairs and I liked the typically Spanish, smooth paprika and manchego cheese sauce they came in. However, Theo our son was much more used to meatballs in a very rich Italian tomato and garlic sauce and couldn’t handle the Spanish subtlety.
Genevieve, our daughter, enjoyed the chorizo a la sidra (£7.50), with big chunks of rich sausage swimming in a dipping sauce, and it took me a long time to think about the crispy chicken wings (£7). The meat was crispy white and moist on the inside, and the sauce on the outside was pleasantly warming, but I concluded they were kizzed rather than crispy.
From the fish section of the menu we ordered grilled sardines (£7.50). We have two of these, bisected and floating on a bed of lentils. They were well prepared and had that sudden spiciness of fish.
We were all looking forward to the patatas bravas (£6.50) and remembered how on our last holiday they had been smothered in a pink sauce so bright it looked like strawberry pudding. The Bishop Auckland patatas – fried potatoes – were more muted in color and flavor, but Theo ate them handfuls nonetheless.
Petra, my wife, named the Berenjenas (£6.50) as her favorite of the night. These were finger-sized chunks of eggplant deep fried in an incredibly light batter and served with a muscovado honey dressing. I found it a little too sweet and preferred the Broccoli a la Catalana (£6.75) which was sprinkled with raisins and pine nuts and grilled with a hint of chilli spiciness. It was an imaginative combination that I think worked really well.
In truth, tapas is not Theo’s ideal food. He’s more of a three-Yorkshire Sunday roast, happiest with a large bowl of chips accompanied by a side of chips. Too much fumbling for him, a little bit of this, a little bit of that and too many sticky fingers – we really could have used a finger cup.
The rest of us loved the variety, everyone had a different favorite and if one dish wasn’t quite to our liking we could move on to the next. Eight dishes between four left us pleasantly full – we might as well have accommodated a time-honored tortilla – with enough room for dessert.
There were five options on the menu from which Theo chose the poached peaches (£5.50). For him it was the best part of the meal, big succulent lumps of berries with a Seville orange ice cream that I thought was exquisite – not lemony at all, so it paired well with the peach.
I had Catalan Crème (£5.50) which is a custard with a hard glazed top. I wondered if there might be a hint of vanilla or cinnamon in there, but I couldn’t detect anything. Instead, there were two remarkably large orange biscuits that gave the pudding all the fruity flavor it needed.
We only drank a chilled pitcher of tap water so our bill for four people came to £79.25 which was very reasonable for quality food, imaginative cooking and stylish presentation. It revived memories of past Iberian holidays and created anticipation and excitement for the one to come.
As we left, dusk fell on the vast spaces of Bishop’s pretty market square, lined with some fabulous buildings that are slowly coming back to life.
But a light drizzle fell from a gunmetal-grey sky – we might have had a taste of Spain, but we were still experiencing an English summer.
Bishop Auckland DL14 7JF
Tel: 01388 600530
Web: aucklandproject.org. From there we were directed to book through dishcult.com, a very easy experience
Ratings (out of ten): Quality of food 8 Service 7 Surroundings 7 Value 8