IN ITS rustic stylings, its displays of Seville oranges and dried chillies, bulbs of garlic and legs of ham, there is something of old Spain about La Feria. They lend faint echoes of Franco’s time, before cheap airlines and package tours leached sun-seeking tourists into sleepy Spanish towns and quaint fishing villages now lost forever.
Yet as you approach, past the high-end real-estate and boutique shops of Cold Bath Road, and step up towards the attractive outdoor dining area, with its huge wrought-iron canopy, festoons of lights and patio heaters, you also get a glimpse of a modern restaurant entirely in keeping with its time.
The name means “the fair”. In southern France and in Spain, especially in Andalusia, La Feria is an annual celebration, a time when the Spanish engage with their culture and let their hair down. Cordoba’s is in May, Malaga’s in August; every April in Seville there are bullfights, flamenco dancing, food stalls selling paella and Spanish meats. Horses and carriages carry locals dressed in colourful local costume. For tourists drawn to these events it is a taste of the country’s true character, the Spain of Hemingway, however much we disagree with his lionizing the matador.
The restaurant’s emblem is a chicken, and its rotisserie-cooked free range chicken, dashed with Andalusian herbs and spices is a signature dish, as are the crunchy prawns from Sanlucar de Barrameda on Spain’s Atlantic coast, north of Cadiz. But instead we are drawn to the fiesta of delights offered by La Feria’s long tapas menu.
While tapas are authentically Spanish, this style of cuisine has evolved a long way from the simple plates once served as appetizers to accompany drinks in 19th century bodegas. Placing a thin slice of bread or meat over your glass between sips prevented fruit flies from invading your sherry. La Feria – alongside chains such as Iberica, and little one-off bars like El Bareto in Chapel Allerton – embody the gentrification of the style.
Here, a good deal of expense has gone into creating a restaurant which combines being welcoming, modern and comfortable with one that clearly harks back to simpler Spanish times. In places, the plaster has been stripped back to the bare brick, while faded posters advertise fiestas and bullfights. At one end, the distressed wood of old doors and cabinets, shutters and wine boxes have been coaxed into an arresting mural.
Tables close to the bar enjoy views onto the terrace, as the late afternoon blurs into twilight. Our table is to one side, beneath the star of oak beams supporting a vast skylight, which filters a darkening sky. Staff flit between tables in their stylish black livery.
Three of us are dining, and between us we pick out nine choices from the menu. Rather than inundating our table with all these straight away, our waitress teams them into two waves – first the seafood, then the meat and vegetable choices.
Among the first assault is a bowl criss-crossed with salty anchovies from Cantabria in northern Spain, slithering and bitter in their cheek-sucking oil and lemon marinade. A creamy lime aioli is a nice tangy counterpoint to the crisp loops and squiggles of lightly-battered calamari.
The meat dishes soon begin to arrive. A mound of juicy pork and beef albondigas – meatballs – glisten in their rich tomato sauce; juicy pork strips easily away from short ribs which have been glazed in a sticky sauce and dashed with parsley leaves.
Patatas bravas – cubes of potato in a spicy tomato dressing – are a staple of any tapas experience. Here a zig-zag of rich mayonnaise brings an indulgent twist to the experience. The croquettes are another essential. Here hulks of manchego cheese have been wrapped in serrano ham and coated in breadcrumbs and baked to a crisp.
The champinones al ajillo – field mushrooms – have been cooked only as much as is absolutely necessary. They retain their shape and firm consistency while hunks of crusty bread prove perfect for dabbing up the last of their imaginative sherry, garlic and chilli sauce. Peppers and onions fill a sturdy Spanish omelette.
Amidst all this, a single dish, scallops and chorizo, actually the most expensive one we chose, was the sole missed step from this sure-footed performance, the subtlety of the seafood lost amidst the muscular tastes of the sausage.
Tapas prices vary from around £5 to £8.50, half-chicken dishes start at £10, and there is a host of salads, as well as the £19 Andalus sharing board which brings together a host of cold meats, cheeses, peppers and olives for group-grazing purposes. A list of specials changes daily.
All this makes for a dazzling evening's dining, dipping in and out of each of these competing dishes. Glasses of silky rioja and wonderful Alhambra Especial beers enhance an authentically Spanish experience which came in at roughly £95 for three, though we could have brought it closer to £85 by ditching those scallops; less gluttonous company could reduce the bill further still.
And having dined ourselves to a standstill, it took the reviving powers of three steaming Cortados before we were ready to head out into the gathering gloom.