EXPERIENCE ESPANA

FORGET THE JANUARY DIET, YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO RESIST A PLATE OF TAPAS OR FIVE AT SOPRANO, AS CHARLIE BOND FINDS OUT…

January is known as being ‘blue’ for many reasons; the weather is miserable, everyone’s on a diet and avoiding alcohol and payday seems aeons away. Well, I can tell you how to make the January blues go away – and that’s by ditching the diet and heading to Soprano in Tunbridge Wells – a Spanish restaurant where you’ll be served a little slice of sunshine, even when it’s grey outside.

Nestled on the High Street next to the ever-popular Juliet’s and just down from the glitzy new The Ivy, Soprano is now one of the oldest independent restaurants in Tunbridge Wells, and its popularity is showing no signs of wavering.

When we visit on a gloomy Thursday evening, the place is packed – there are large groups catching up, couples at the bar sipping cocktails and even some lone diners who in my opinion have got the right attitude – why share tapas when you can have it all to yourself?

We’re shown to our table and presented with an extensive drink list featuring everything from gin to Sangria, plus an even more comprehensive food menu. I joke that with all these options we’ll be here a while and our waiter says that doesn’t matter – they’re open until 1am anyway.

Although predominantly Spanish, the menus also include influences from elsewhere too – you’ll find wines from Italy, France and New Zealand, and Mediterranean dishes like hummus to suit all palettes. But, with my guest for this evening having lived in Spain, we’re keeping it as authentic as possible – and we start by ordering one of the ten Spanish wines on offer, the Rioja Campodorado (£6.95 for 175ml) which is spicy, warming and perfect for a cold evening.

While we peruse the menu we’re brought some popcorn to nibble on, and our waiter suggests trying the olives (£3.45) or the Fechas con Serrano (grilled dates wrapped in serrano ham – £3.95). They arrive and we greedily tuck in to both, momentarily forgetting there’s more (much more!) to come.

Though the dates and olives have provided a mix of sweet and saltiness, what we need now is tanginess, which we get from the absolutely divine Gazpacho Andaluso (£4.95). Made with red onion, peppers and extra virgin olive oil, it’s fresh, zesty and incredibly moreish – as is the pan de tomato (£4.05) we’ve ordered in case there isn’t quite enough food. The bread is topped with a mix of spicy fresh tomato, basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil and in mere seconds we’ve managed to devour the lot.

We’ve now been eating and drinking solidly for a good half an hour and we haven’t even had so much as a bite of tapas yet. We fear we may have already peaked, but somehow, when the dishes arrive before us, our appetites return.
Between the two of us we’ve opted for four dishes – patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce, £6), paella de verduras
(vegetable paella, £6.45), gambas piri piri (prawns in garlic and chilli, £7.50) and chorizo al vino tinto (chorizo sautéed in rioja tinto sauce, £7.25). The portion sizes here are quite generous, so with all the starters and nibbles we’ve already consumed, four dishes is enough, but if you were to head straight for the tapas you could probably squeeze in a fifth.

The next few minutes are spent dipping in to each dish and exclaiming over the flavours in each – the chorizo is rich, the prawns juicy and spicy, the paella hearty and the patatas bravas smoky.

Each element is delicious on its own, but it’s when the fl avours all come together that this meal really comes into its own. The trouble is, because everything is ‘just a mouthful’ I fi nd myself going back again, and again, and again…
Eventually though, I have to admit defeat and it’s time to
(reluctantly) stop. Our waiter proffers dessert and we politely decline. Maybe if I wasn’t already eight dishes down I could have fl irted with the idea of churros or pecan pie, but I’ve basically just eaten my body weight in cured meat, so perhaps I should pass
on this occasion.

Instead, we order coffees and recline back in our seats, watching as people come and go. By this time it’s late, but the bar is fi lling up with customers sampling the gin cocktails, and there’s still a steady fl ow of people coming through the door for their tapas fi x.
Apparently, we’re not being let off without a dessert, and we’re presented with two small creamy cocktails – a sweet mix of Kahloua, Baileys and Cointreau served with a strawberry, chocolate and a Haribo chaser. These prove to be less fi lling but just as satisfying as a traditional dessert, and the perfect way to end what has been a fantastic meal.

I’d definitely dine at Soprano again – not just for the amazing food, but for the electric atmosphere too. Sometimes, especially at this time of year you can be hard pressed to find eateries with more than a handful of people inside, but Soprano proves we all need a little Spanish sunshine this month – even if it does come in the form of tapas in Tunbridge Wells rather than two weeks on the beach…

www.sopranowinebar.co.uk