I’ve been writing this blog for nearly ten years, and I’ve been moaning that Reading needs a good tapas restaurant for most of them. Certainly I was saying that from the moment, back in September 2013, when I had the misfortune of visiting Picasso just off Caversham Bridge (“one tapas is enough for two people” was the warning sign, looking back). Surely, given the popularity of small plates in general and tapas in particular, someone would give it a bash?
That said, there was a halcyon period, between 2015 and 2018, when Reading was graced with I Love Paella, first in Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road, then at The Horn in town, and finally at the Fisherman’s Cottage by the canal. But the owners of the pub decided to let them go, so they could offer their own menu which looked disconcertingly like I Love Paella’s. It didn’t work: the pub closed and changed hands.
And what have we had since then? Numerous restaurants that do good small plates, but only one place, Thames Lido, for tapas (their “poolside bar menu”). I know the Lido has its fans, but having had nothing but inconsistent meals there – and having watched them churn through chefs like it’s nobody’s business – for me that tapas itch remains unscratched.
It’s baffling, because it’s a style of eating that has readily taken root elsewhere. In Bristol you can choose between Bravas, Gambas, Bar 44 or Paco Tapas. London options include Barrafina, Brindisa, Salt Yard and Iberica, and I’ve barely got started. Closer to home Goat On The Roof opened in Newbury last year (I liked it, when I went) and more recently El Cerdo has started trading in Maidenhead, part of its ongoing explosion of interesting-looking new restaurants. And this kind of restaurant keeps coming – Salty Olive, a pintxo restaurant, is opens soon in Wokingham. Yet Reading’s tapas market remains resolutely untapped.
In my experience, great tapas restaurants in this country tend to be run by Brits fanatical about Spain, Spanish culture and Spanish food. Often, rather than recreating what you would get in Andalusia, they set about building a superior re-imagining of it. The 44 Group, run by the Morgan family, is a great example, completely obsessed with produce and producers. Arbequina, down Oxford’s Cowley Road, is another.
Even tapas restaurants which feel more authentically Spanish, more an attempt to create a traditional tapas bar in this country, are often set up by Brits. I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Los Gatos, easily the best restaurant in Swindon, perched up in the Old Town: it’s only in the process of writing this week’s review that I discovered that it, too, was founded by a British couple and named after Malaga’s legendary bar of the same name.
So really, I should have ventured out to Maidenhead this week to try El Cerdo. It fits the bill I’ve just described: the website talks about a love of Spain and Spanish flavours, the menu makes all the right noises. Muddy Stilettos raved about their (no doubt free) food, and it appears – from a look at Companies House – to be owned by Brits. That would be the obvious choice, but who likes obvious choices anyway?
Instead I decided to revisit the one tapas restaurant I can think of that appears, from what I can gather, to be owned by a Spaniard, Wokingham’s Sanpa. It’s been running since 2012, and I visited it back in 2016, when I loved the place. They then moved to a new house (as did I – twice) and our paths diverged. But people get too hung up on the shiny and new, so before I reviewed the shiny and new I decided it was time to get myself to Wokingham with Zoë and see whether the intervening years had been kind to Sanpa.
It’s one of the town’s older buildings, two conjoined cottages, all beams, white walls and cosy, farmhouse-style chairs and tables. The two dining rooms are separated by a hearth and the second gives a view into the open-ish kitchen. It looked homely, not unpleasant but also, in honesty, not drastically different to when I visited this building last in 2016, back when it was home to a restaurant called Jessy’s.
It was also, and this never flatters a dining room, empty. Marie Celeste empty. Not with a few tables settling up, not with reserved signs marking the space of the diners yet to come. Just empty. I don’t know about you, but I always feel guilty if it seems like I’m the only thing standing between staff and an early night.
Despite that the welcome was warm and immediate and it felt like a nice, if cavernous, place to stop on a midweek evening. And looking at the menu I could see plenty of reasons to settle in for a few waves of small plates. Most of it very much looked the part, although a couple of dishes – bacalhau à bras and chicken fajitas – did seem to have wandered across from other restaurants.
Pricing for tapas was all clustered around the eight pound mark – although some dishes were £7.95 and others £7.59 for reasons which seemed capricious at best. The bigger plates – steak, lamb shank, three different kinds of paella – were grouped together under a section endearingly entitled “Other things to order”, even though that literally describes everything on a menu, if you think about it.
My favourite part – and I’ve never seen anything like this before – was a sternly worded box in the bottom left. It said, and I’m quoting verbatim here, Please make sure that you know what this dish looks like or taste (sic) like. Due to the level of controversy and the cost of this dish, we regret to inform you that we will not be able to refund this dish of (sic) your bill if you’re not comfortable with the outcome of your order.
I followed the asterisk, expecting it to be something contentious like octopus, or sweetbreads, but instead found a rib-eye with blue cheese and Rioja sauce. Is steak and potatoes really controversial, or were they playing it safe because it was just shy of twenty-four pounds?
The wine list was okay, if not hugely tempting. I was in the mood for a Spanish beer – always so enjoyable with tapas – but all they had was San Miguel by the bottle. So we decided to grab a jug of sangria and that turned out to be an excellent choice. It was expertly put together to taste as if it had no alcohol in it, even though you knew it did, and if it contained a slug of rum or brandy it was nicely blended and concealed. It tasted, to be honest, like holidays – and what’s not to like about any drink capable of that?
Our first wave of dishes was a decent reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of the kitchen. Bread was bought in but serviceable enough, and the allioli tottered under the weight of an industrial quantity of garlic. But the colour was Hellmans-pale not golden, the consistency woolly, closer to fridge-cold butter than the good stuff. Chorizo in cider came, not as an earthenware dish full of slices of chorizo, caramelised at the edges, rich with juices, but rather as two hulking sausages, plain and unadorned. This didn’t fill me with hope but actually they were terrific, the kind of quality you can’t easily get your hands on in this country.
If that dish didn’t give the bread much to do by way of moppage the next more than made up for it. I’d loved Sanpa’s prawns in garlic on my visit seven years ago and was keen to reacquaint myself with them. They were still very nice indeed, sizzling away in a little skillet surrounded by nuggets of garlic somewhere between golden and crunchy.
This, more than the allioli, felt like the bread’s destiny, to dive and scoop and play in that pool of oil and garlic. I remembered halfway through that I was in the office next day, and felt bad for my colleagues. But if you wanted an illustration of what’s happened over the last seven years you couldn’t find a better one – the dish cost about a pound more than last time, but contained roughly half as many prawns.
Then there was the dish for which I had the highest hopes: panceta a la parilla, described in the menu as “ideal as finger food”. From that I was hoping for little cubes of pork belly, something close to chicharrones. Instead we got three slabs of belly, plainly grilled, without much accompaniment. It wasn’t quite cooked to the point where the fat starts to render and everything gets gloriously sticky, and I found a couple of shards of bone in my piece.
I found myself thinking about what this dish would have been like in the market at Malaga, the whole thing dressed with a little herbs, the tomatoes thicker and tasting properly of tomatoes, as they always do abroad. Abroad they would have been bright with grassy olive oil and scattered with rock salt. Did I think the chef was running on autopilot because he hadn’t bothered to do any of that here, or had I decided that because I could see, through in the open kitchen, that he was cooking with his headphones on?
A meal like this is definitely a game of two halves, and as we cogitated and fine-tuned our next selection of dishes the staff – who were absolutely brilliant throughout, by the way – took our dishes away. I asked our server if she had any recommendations – “you’ve already had quite a few of my favourites” she said, which I liked.
By this point another couple had come in and were sitting the other side of the room, which had the advantage of making me feel like less of a lemon. Again, I worried about all the good restaurants unable to pack them in on a midweek evening; I doubt, back in Reading, Popeyes was having this problem. I felt a moral responsibility to order more dishes – and another jug of sangria, although there was nothing moral about that.
Our second wave of dishes showed the same inconsistency but, if anything, were more disappointing. I’d decided against the patatas bravas, our server’s recommendation, instead picking the patatas con crema de Cabrales. This was the same cheese, by the way, that featured in that Absolutely No Refunds Ribeye. The possible reason for that is that Cabrales is stinky. It is one of the most agricultural blue cheeses there is, perfect with Asturian cider, though pretty good on its own. This potato dish should have been salty and funky – a handful, no less.
And yet the surprisingly dark sauce just didn’t have the oomph, and there wasn’t enough of it. What there was had slipped through the cracks and landed in a pool at the bottom of the dish, rather than coating each crunchy cube of spud. A real shame, because the potatoes themselves were excellent. A good opportunity squandered: was it down to those headphones again?
Albondigas were another recommendation and, again, just missed the mark. The meatballs themselves were genuinely lovely – a coarse mix of pork and beef, clearly handmade and as good as most I’ve tried. But drowning them in a gloopy sauce of tomatoes and peas coated the accomplishment in an emulsifying layer of blah. And I didn’t see the point of putting more cubes of potato at the bottom where they just wound up bedraggled and soggy. The meatballs should have been the star of the show – again, my mind wandered to Malaga and to its marvellous Uvedoble, where the meatballs come perched on a bed of shoestring fries, the meaty juices soaking in, the whole thing unimprovable.
Croquetas were probably the most disappointing thing I ate. These were apparently made with Serrano ham, though good luck finding much of it. They’d been fried to the point where the shell was a permacrust, the inside again woolly rather than silky. Had they been previously frozen? I wouldn’t have bet against it. Just over six pounds for these tiddlers didn’t feel like amazing value (and these days, things being how they are, I don’t talk about value as much as I once did).
Last but not least, a round of goats cheese with tomato jam. This, again, is a dish I remember fondly – this time from I Love Paella – but Sanpa’s was a pale imitation. Maybe it’s because we ate it last of all, but it didn’t have that almost brûlée crust – instead it was a little like cardboard. Underneath the goats cheese was still decent, although I like pretty much any goats cheese, and the tomato jam was a classic, if sweet, combo. But again I felt underwhelmed; I knew Sanpa could get their hands on decent ingredients – the chorizo showed as much – but I didn’t feel like they always did enough with them.
I feel bad saying all this, partly because I wanted so badly to like them and also because, as I said, service was brilliant all night. It takes real skill to be that happy and engaged on a Wednesday in the middle of spring, looking after a restaurant of precisely four customers. But the staff did exactly that, and I imagine they come into their own on a bustling weekend night, when I sincerely hope Sanpa is packed with happy diners. But also, much as I wanted to like them, I couldn’t imagine a Saturday night where I would be among them.
Our meal came to just shy of ninety pounds, not including tip, and tempting though it was to have a pint and a debrief in the Crispin next door, we headed for the station. I found myself simultaneously hoping that Sanpa continued to prosper – I’m sentimental like that – and wondering, if my meal had been representative, how they really could.
“I bet the people who run that restaurant have never been to Arbequina or Bar 44” said Zoë as we boarded our train home.
“No, probably not. But why would they? They’re Spanish, they probably feel they have authenticity on their side.”
“But that’s the point, you have to adapt or die: if they don’t, they might get left behind. Last time you gave them a rating of 8 or something, this time it’s going to be much lower. What will it be like in another five years? And some of the touches in our meal tonight just felt dated. Like that squiggle of balsamic glaze under the goat’s cheese, who does that any more?”
I nodded silently in agreement at my other half, easily a better restaurant critic than I am these days, as the train trundled back to Reading.
Sanpa – 6.9
37-39 Denmark Street, Wokingham, RG40 2AY