CULINARY excitement usually comes late to Sheffield. The rest of the country tasted pizza Margherita, sushi, baltis and Starbuck’s lemon poppy muffins long before we did.
But when it comes to tapas this city wasn’t that far behind in the queue to sample this now ubiquitous Spanish nibble.
All right, London may have had a head start of a year or two (Seville a sight longer) but in the Nineties the Steel City was no stranger to albondigas (meatballs to you) or patatas bravas, those little cubes of sautéed potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce.
Although having said that, only last year I ordered patatas bravas in a local eaterie and was served up chips with tomato sauce on the grounds that the chef was Spanish.
Today we are at the spiritual home of tapas in Sheffield, the Mediterranean on Sharrowvale Road. It was here, under the then ownership of chef Michael Morgan, that his wine supplier called and said he might as well have some recipe leaflets which came with the Spanish wine for something called tapas.
Michael did. He made some. And the rest we know.
Since then everywhere does tapas, or uses the word, although the food may not be Spanish. Even Italian restaurants, which have a perfectly good word for nibbles in stuzzichini, use it
Chef Morgan has long gone but the tapas live on. There ought to be a little plaque or at least a mention on the website but perhaps, for the knowing, it is enough to note the order of words the Med uses to describe itself on the facia: “Tapas, Fish and Seafood.”
As far as I know, no-one involved in the Med has been Spanish. Michael was Sheffield through and through, his wife Rebecca of Cypriot stock. Current owner Otto Damahi is from Morocco, so he can claim to be Spanish by colonial proxy.
Otto, who took over in 1999 and became sole owner last year, has celebrated the fact by giving the place a lick of blue and white paint outside and a spruce up within.
“People were saying it was like eating in a grannies tea room,” he said a few days after our meal.
Otto is a man with two restaurants and a stout pair of shoes for he also owns Otto’s just up the road and manages to be in both every night.
We call on a Saturday lunchtime and are surprised to be the only ones in the 46-seater restaurant. Can they find us a table for two? “Absolutely,” said manager Aziz (he’s from Iraq), who uses the word a lot.
We’ve used the Med a lot over the years and select the family one, in a corner.
Spanish beer? No senor, but we do a Peroni (£3.50).
My wife has a 250ml ‘pot’ of sauvignon blanc for £4.50.
There are some 30 tapas, which seldom change, and we’ve been having them so long I could probably recite the list. “Our customers have been coming for a long time and they get cross if things are missing,” said Otto.
The place used to be a post office and the old sub-postmaster still pops in for a meal.
The trick with tapas is to order only what you can eat easily without half of it going cold, so ask for it to come steadily. Aziz asked us in what order we wanted it. “Surprise us,” said my wife. “Absolutely,” said Aziz.
Of course, we have to have the patatas bravas (£1.95) and no-one does this simple dish better, sauteed potatoes in tomato sauce with, the winning touch, a blob of mayonnaise.The other staple is the Spanish bread (£1.10), griddled slices rubbed with tomato and garlic.
There are baby aubergines stuffed with rice and peas (£3.80), densely textured cumin-spiked meatballs in a sizzling tomatoey bean casserole (£4.50) and firm slices of tortilla, or Spanish omelette.
There are strips of chargrilled garlicky chicken (£4.95), fingers of squid, crisp on the outside, tender within (£4.95) and battered milky white hake (£4.50). The Spanish eat more hake than anyone else in Europe. Chef Kebir Barka does a lovely crunchy batter.
And finally we have the pie-like tuna and feta empanada (£4.25), in honour of my wife’s late mother, for it was her favourite.
We could have chosen zarzuela (Spanish fish stew), cod casserole, pan-fried sardines, chargrilled prawns, plaice with couscous or monkfish skewers and still have plenty of options left.
For sweets, the Mediterranean makes no nods to Spain. I have an excellent, citrousy, lemon tart and my wife a sturdy crème brulee.
Tapas, which are served lunchtimes and most evenings (except Friday and Saturday), make up 70 per cent of the weekday food orders, as against the mainly fish a la carte. Most popular are the fish stew, fillet of bream and squid.
You could argue that the place needs to introduce a new range of tapas along with its new image but what are they going to drop? Someone’s bound to complain.
The tapas cost just over £40. Did we enjoy them? Absolutely.
The Dawes Verdict
71 Sharrowvale Road, Sheffield S11 8ZF.
Tel: 0114 266 1069.
Open Mon-Sat noon-2.30pm and 5.30-10pm. Veggie dishes. Credit cards. Street parking.