Simon Richardson experiences the full spectrum of greatness and madness at Leeds’ most opulent tapas joint
I’LL cut to the chase: I don’t like sharing food. I order what I want because, well, I want it. Oh, you want one too? There it is – on the menu! My only exception is tapas, although restaurants over here so often insist on serving Spanish small plates in bite-sized morsels of three, resulting in otherwise sensible adults resorting to thumb wars over the odd-one-out.
So much flavour in some of these dishes, so much disappointment in others.
Ibérica is the kind of place to go on a date. A more spectacular, romantic setting would be hard to imagine, the skylight of the main dining area providing one of the most stunning restaurant photo opps in the country and the high ceilings and intricate stonework laying on the 19th-century glamour as thickly as the strata of a tortilla. We arrive early and enjoy a glass of wine in the lounge area before heading through to be wowed by the sheer beauty of the place.
What’s the most tapas-y way to get going? Tomato bread, or pan Catalan (£3.50), with a welcoming crispiness and tomato exuding the freshness of summer. Where’s the garlic, though? I leave my partner to it and instead focus my attention on one of my truest tapas fetishes: the humble croquette. These ones are hare (£8) and an absolute knock-out; creamy and rich with a strong, almost gamey flavour. Superb – plus there are four of them!
We’re already on the Ibérica rollercoaster of hit and miss, though, as the patatas bravas (£6) arrive. These look and taste like they’ve come straight off a Booker catering truck; no crispiness, no real flavour and a tomato sauce that seems as if it’s been watered down. Spice? Fresh olive oil? Not a bit of it. I can’t quite believe they’re on the menu, to be honest, especially not at six quid. Hake fritters (£12) are next, and the batter isn’t right, resulting in sogginess instead of crispiness. Having said that, the delicate, mild white fish comes through and there’s an addictive, warming spiciness to the jalapeño sauce.
The confit artichoke (£7) is better, the deep smoke flavour married with a crunchy outer 'leaf' section and a creamy interior. So much flavour in some of these dishes, so much disappointment in others. Both the octopus (£12) and lamb (£12.50) dishes suffer with the same problem; the accompanying pork to the former being all fat, no meat, and the entire of the latter the same, removing all the distinctive taste of, well, lamb.
But just as you’re about to start hand-wringing, something excellent comes along and straps you back into the ride. The centrepiece of this evening’s meal is the crispy cabrarocca (£28 – yes, I know). It’s a whole red fish – head, fins, the lot, battered and deep fried. All the complaints about textures from my previous paragraph melt – no, crunch – away in a salty, fishy spectacle. You eat the whole thing, you see (except the larger part of the vertebral column). Pull it to pieces with your hands and bite into the cheeks, the tail, whatever you fancy. The flesh is still there in the middle, but it can’t compare to the in-your-face, messy fun of the rest of the dish. And that’s what food is about – enjoyment.
While I’m waxing lyrical, I should mention the wine – Camins del Priorat (£52 – the cheaper option was sold out). These wines, from a small region just south west of Barcelona, are known for being powerful and robust, and this one is all pepper and dark fruit. It’s spectacular and reminds me why I so often visit the downstairs wine bar at Ibérica; their selection is phenomenal.
On to the desserts, then. The cheesecake (£7.50) is solid if unspectacular, and the accompanying sheep’s cheese shavings feel like the wrong choice as they’re completely masked by everything else. Great tangy sorbet, though. The naranja Valencia is a damp squib, too. The segments have long since lost their flavour and juiciness; my guess is they were prepped quite some time ago. And with that, we sup up our dessert drinks, take one last, longing look at the ceiling (wow, though. Honestly) and head off into the night.
As I look over my notes, the scores on the doors for Ibérica look like they’ve been awarded by two people. It draws you in with its fame, seduces you with its stunning surroundings, then maddens you with its food. Sometimes excellent, sometimes supremely disappointing, it has been the ultimate curate’s egg of a restaurant, but I’ll keep going back for the wine alone – and to tear a fish skeleton apart with my bare hands.
Iberica, Hepper House, 17a East Parade, LS1 2BH
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All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Tomato bread 6, croquettes 9, patatas bravas 2, hake fritters 6, artichoke 8, octopus 6, lamb 4, cabrarocca 10, cheesecake 6, naranja Valencia 5.
Attentive and friendly, but not outstanding.
Comfy lounge and magnificent main restaurant. Quiet, but fair enough midweek.