Lunch Tuesday to Saturday £15.00
A la carte (Half price Thursdays*)
Para picar £2.50 - £5.95 | Tapas £6.25 - £17.00
Charcuteria £15.00 - £36.00 | Para Algo Dulce £5.95 - £9.95
Cooking 8/10 | Service 4.5/5
Flavour 5/5 | Value 5/5
*Some items are excluded
You never forget the first time, so they say. Mine was memorable. A youthful trip to Spain, just off a train in Andalusia. The sun baked down: I was parched. I heard music playing (Santana's Samba Pa Ti - the details matter) and was sucked in by the cool and the shade. I'm not sure I'd ever had a chilled fino before, and I'd certainly never had the little tapa or two which came with it. There may have been almonds, or olives, or boquerones. No, I'm wrong. The details really don't matter.
But such memories explain why tapas generally don't work in this country. And why they really shouldn't work in a restaurant hidden away in Leith. Mind you, it has been here for 14 years. And joint owners Daniel Shearon and Greig Davidson have kept their Spanish chef Paco for 12 of those years.
It's not the easiest place to find. Very appropriately, a few years ago it won the Evening News Hidden Gem award. Good things are worthy of a quest, one which is becoming easier since the extension of the Edinburgh tram network to Leith and Newhaven. Local traders are already seeing a difference from the recently opened extension right down to the water.
For all that, the place was deserted on a Thursday lunchtime. Daniel isn't in the least concerned. We have a half price deal on Thursday nights, he explained. The place will be heaving later. It's not hard to find great value here. There is no stinting on quality: Spanish morcilla and chorizo; Iberian black pork; olive oil of the highest quality. These are not cheap ingredients.
At lunchtimes you can choose two tapas per person for £15 and they throw in a dish of patatas bravas and a rocket and tomato salad. Patatas bravas, I hear you yawn. Well sit back and pay attention. The zing of the sauce and the counterpoint of the aioli will certainly get your taste buds going. We chose another five plates, and got wow! to the power of five.
Secreto involves griddled black pork with a stunning Romesco sauce. In tapas restaurants which are parts of chains, one suspects that the sauces arrive in gallon containers. Here you detect the hand of a maestro in the kitchen. The black pudding was less smooth than the normal morcilla but equally tasty. Two chunks arrived, a quail's egg doing a balancing act on each one. Artichokes were served cold, drizzled with a basil infused olive oil and balsamic reduction. Warm goats cheese can be dull, even with a side of the intriguing sounding peach aioli. The little touch of genius here was a brulée topping. What a difference a hint of sweetness and crunch can make.
Finally, and I'm leaving the very best till last, brocheta de merluza y gambas. Fish skewers can be tricky. You don't want to undercook the prawn. The net result is often food which is birstled and dry. I don't know whether the Moorish marinade (possibly involving saffron?) was responsible, but I suspect it was just the cook's consummate skill which resulted in soft tasty hake and succulent juicy prawns. Our seven plates of food left us sated. With three glasses of wine, there was change (excluding the tip) from £60.
The place itself is airy and stylish. There are Spanish film posters on the walls, and you can buy some of the produce. I was delighted to see our house favourite Orodeal olive oil. We were looked after by Charlie then Lucas, and chatted with owner Daniel. Getting stale after 14 years? Far from it. Development plans include a possible mail order business. There is clearly much thought given to looking after staff and making sure they have adequate time off.
I'm sure they hope to reap benefits from the opening up of the area and from visitors to the new nearby distillery. Whoever else they attract, they certainly have some new regulars from Casa Johnston.