THE last time we had tapas it was August in Spain, the temperature was 35 degrees at 7.30pm, and we were sitting almost alone in the street outside a bar – it wasn’t until much later the locals turned out, hours after we’d finished off our patatas bravas, bringing plastic chairs with them to drink, gossip and dine on the dotted line.
It was a memorable evening.
May in Darlington; 10 degrees at 7.30pm and so we sat inside. And we asked for the doors to be kept shut as a nearby yard full of fridges was going up in acrid flames.
Could it possibly be as memorable?
We were far from alone in the dark taverna. The people kept streaming in – quite how this Duke Street tardis fitted everybody in, upstairs and downstairs, was difficult to say. It was noticeable that many of the customers were regulars, greeting the front-of-house proprietor as a friend.
The Sol does do conventional meals – two courses for £13.95 – but we decided to choose from the 53 tapas dishes, which range for £2.95 for a Feta salad up to £15.95 for a special spread of Iberian Ham. Most were about £6, and we were given an Ikea-style piece of paper, with a bookies’ stub pencil, to write down our choices.
It was genuinely hard because there were so many tantalising options. Consequently, even though we were recommended to choose between two and three dishes each, we ended up ordering seven between the two of us.
And they started to arrive in dribs and drabs within minutes. First up were my creamy garlic mushrooms with Petra’s tortilla hard on their heels. It was hard to know whether to tuck in while they were hot or wait until an accompaniment arrived.
I tucked in. The mushrooms, that didn’t have the promised toasted bread with them, were gorgeous, a creamy heaven with plump, juicy mushrooms topped by an intriguing curl of deep fried carrot shaving, which was both crunchy and chewy.
The tortilla was fine, but there is only so much excitement that can be derived from a potato and egg dish. Then two brimming bowls of fresh salad arrived, one topped with large beef tomatoes and the other with Iberian ham and chewy Spanish ham.
I was forensically inspecting the salads when my sautéed lamb’s liver in a Rioja gravy arrived. This was the seventh dish on our order, the one that was only saved from the cut by my gluttony and the fact that it was only £3.95.
It was, for me, the highlight of the meal. Four or five steaks of liver in a dark, rich sauce served on a bed of mash. There was none of the grittiness, or stringiness or toughness or general offalness often associated with liver: it was knife-through-butter smooth. It presented me with a dilemma as I knew what I considered to be my main dish – slow braised beef in Diane sauce – was yet to come, but if I enjoyed my way through the liver, I would not be able to appreciate it.
Petra was just as taken with her cod tagine: a perfectly deep fried piece of fish in batter served in a vegetable stew including courgette, aubergine and tomato.
Eventually, with one steak of liver remaining, my beef arrived, topped by a curl of carrot. It was good, the beef beautifully braised and gentle whereas the Diane sauce, although creamy, had a sharpness running through it. I still had a mushroom left and I began comparing the differences in the creamy sauces, the sweetness of the garlic versus the edginess of the mustard and Worcestershire sauce in the Diane.
Really, though, I wanted to finish off my last sliver of liver.
I did manage it, but six dishes would have been enough.
After the extraordinary 53-dish choice of the tapas menu, the dessert list – £4.95 each – was a little limited. Petra went for vanilla crème brulee and I convinced myself that, given the options and the amount I had already consumed, chocolate cake was the one for me.
The crème brulee was fine, although lacking in a vanilla twist, whereas my cake surprised me by being perfectly balanced. Rather than being a steaming great wedge of stickiness, it was a couple of delicate triangles with a glorious gloop of fudgey sauce and a scoop of much needed ice cream.
Our bill came to £62.45, of which £21 was drinks. If you knock off another tenner for desserts, the seven dish tapas came to just over £30 which represents extremely good value. Although some of it, like the tortilla and the salads, was quite routine, the rest was excellently cooked, extremely tasty and nicely presented with a crispy carrot curl on top.
And it was memorable. Last time we had tapas last August, we walked home in our shorts in the warm late night air through the crowds of people picnicking in the middle of the village’s main street; on our Friday in May, when we walked back out through the door marked “Puerta del Sol”, it was into a refreshingly chilly Darlington evening with a billow of dark fridge smoke pluming up over the rooftops.
The Sol Tapas, 28 Duke Street, Darlington, DL3 7AQ
Open 5pm to late Mon to Fri; 12pm to late Sat; closed on Sun
Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 7, Ambience 7, Service 7, Value for money 8