David Adamson enjoys a Sunday of food and family
Now that the unseasonably warm weather is out of the way it's getting to that time of year where Sundays are spent orbiting around various roast dinners, the culinary equivalent of a roaring fire.
But before we consign ourselves to not one but two seasons of gravy, potatoes and turtlenecks, a couple of weeks ago my family and I decided to see in the last of the bright summer skies with some tapas in, of all places, Quarry Bank Mill, Styal. I took a jumper just in case.
While I was familiar with Quarry Bank Mill thanks to a traumatising primary school trip where we were dressed as urchins and yelled at by an out-of-work actor, I was much less aware of El Bosc.
The opportunity to take in the last of the summer sun with fitting food was there, and I'm very glad we took it
Parked next door to the 17th century pub The Ship, El Bosc - meaning a wood, as in trees in Catalan - opened in August 2022 and has since become a community favourite for those living in the calming, Cranford-esque surroundings of Styal.
Framing itself as a neighbourhood restaurant as much suited to sit down meals as it is a quick bite after a dog walk, tapas would seem the sensible menu for this.
So with my mum, sister, brother-in-law and new nephew in tow, I went on a Sunday afternoon. While the day's menu did include the option of a roast, there would be many of them in the months ahead so it was the well-worn antics of seeing how many round terracotta plates you can fit on one table.
We ordered essentially every item off the tapas menu, bar the sourdough, which pretty much guarantees a sort of Generation Game approach to eating from something with limited surface area. This suited me just fine as, it being a Sunday, I'd slept in, skipped breakfast and arrived ravenous.
Where else to start but with olives and almonds? The salted planta almonds (£3.50) were just what's needed to kick off an afternoon of eating in this style; starting small and building up towards the big 'uns. In some strange quirk of the workings of the human appetite, they're one of those foods that, rather than slowly filling a hole, make you hungrier the more you eat. What's next?
The manzanilla olives (£3.50) were lashed with lemon to the point you could see the light fittings in them, and the citrus addition gave a subtle lift to their earthy taste, both slightly subduing that overly-olivey tang and bringing out its more complex notes.
The boquerones, or marinated white anchovies (£4), were served on top of a slight slice of sourdough, which was the right dimensions for me, seeing as it's meant to be less a slice of bread and more an anchovy delivery system, soaked to its socks in olive oil. Well-sourced anchovies are one of life's delights; plump and astringent to the point of getting whiplash. They were hiding amongst the foliage of a serving of well-dressed rocket, but there was no escape.
With the minnows of the menu dispatched, we moved onto the bigger hitters. First up were the salt and pepper crispy squid with roasted garlic aioli (£9.50). Such is the common trend, you could prefix almost anything with 'salt and pepper' and it'd fly off the menu, but a good tapas meal has to have some seafood in there somewhere.
It can often be a gamble with battered squid, several factors at play that could be undone, but here they were prepared with the right amount of restraint. Crucially the squid were scored before being battered, meaning the flavours permeated them, rather than just sitting on top. Roasted garlic aioli is a joy anyway, and here the amount of garlic (of which it's hard to have too much) was so gorgeously pungent I'm surprised the squid didn't levitate off the plate.
Next were the truffle arancini with saffron aioli (£7.50). While perhaps not very easy on the eye, they tasted truly of truffle; not so much earthy as elemental, and with umami its abiding flavour, something to drag your palate into the undergrowth. The saffron aioli lent another of those flavours that can be hard to pin down, but the two combined to create a small dish that could easily be swerved in favour of something more seductive, but shouldn't be.
Are there many more mouthwatering phrases than 'honey mustard glazed'? While the same can't be said for the word 'chipolata', the honey mustard glazed chipolatas (£8.50) were a sweet, enticing delight. Served with a mustard mayonnaise that had unseen rivers of complex, fiery flavour running through it, they were a perfect combination. If you lift one of the chipolatas out of the bowl and it clings desperately to a lacquer of honey glaze at the bottom you know the 'glaze' isn't the afterthought some dishes show it to be. It was positively smothering the little sausages and I'm glad of it.
Now. Patatas bravas. I've written before about how this dish usually just leaves me cold, but I'm happy to say that, in this instance, I was converted. The tomato sauce, something I still don't quite understand as an obligatory part of the dish, was rich and silky. The potatoes were the sort that let you know it's Sunday, incredibly crispy on the outside - bringing to mind the goose fat kind essential for roasts - and with a fluffy centre. Ordinarily I'd have one or two patatas to be polite, here I was spying my next opportunity in amongst the other prying eyes.
Tapas' approach to a 'main course' can be hard to pin down, but the closest you'd get in the usual style would probably be comprised of one of two things; meatballs or a form of skewered meat. While that might not be the most romantic description, I was utterly in love with the maple mustard chicken skewer with red pepper ketchup (£10.50). This might seem a strange thing for someone who writes about food to say, but I struggle to put into words how delicious this was, it just has to be tried. With chicken thighs you can embed a flavour into the meat to the point it's snuck inside the cell walls, and the thighs here were undergoing the best of existential crises - mustard and maple. Beautiful.
After that, how could the meatballs possibly follow? In fact, the lamb and rosemary meatballs (£8.50) did a sterling job, but somehow their classic combination just didn't square up to the slightly more adventurous achievement of the chicken.
The creme catalan with olive oil shortbread (£7.50) also played around with combinations, but crucially not in the dessert itself, which was a wonderful rendering of a classic that felt no need to faff about; a plane of caramelised sugar thick enough to insulate a conservatory, and underneath a creme of the right velvety texture with a strong note of orange singing through it. The olive oil shortbread, a valiant effort, was ultimately made too soggy by the presence of olive oil.
Sundays are for food and family, each as nourishing for the soul as the other. While we were without one member, my brother Will, we did have a new addition (who strangely didn't fancy tapas) and there'll be many more opportunities for us all to sit around a warming Sunday roast. The opportunity to take in the last of the summer sun with fitting food was there, and I'm very glad we took it.
El Bosc, Altrincham Rd, Styal, SK9 4JE
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If you want to see the receipt as proof this magazine paid for the meal then a copy will be available upon request. Or maybe ask the restaurant.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type. What we mean by this is a restaurant which aspires to be fine dining is measured against other fine dining restaurants, a mid-range restaurant against other mid-range restaurants, a pizzeria against other pizzerias, a teashop against other teashops, a KFC against the contents of your bin. You get the message.
Given the above, this is how we score: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: sigh and shake your head, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: nothing's that good is it?
Manzanilla olives 8, Salted planta almonds 8, Boquerons / Marinated white anchovies 8, Lamb and rosemary meatballs 7, Maple mustard chicken skewer 9, Patatas bravas 8, Truffle arancini 7, Salt and pepper crispy squid 8, Honey mustard glazed chipolatas 8
Young and enthusiastic staff add to the neighbourhood feel
A cosy, lively spot locals have clearly embraced as their own