Basque describes itself as a “Tapas Bar and Restaurant”, though the layout and atmosphere, with prominent beer taps and more leaners than tables, definitely emphasises the bar aspect. This is underscored by a vast and fascinating drinks selection. As well as the expected Riojas and Albariños on the wine list, there’s a whole unknown (to me) world of Spanish beers to explore, as well as local craft beers and even Basque cider.
The bar emphasis was also made obvious by the street frontage, which seemed a cynical attempt to subvert the non-smoking laws. There are doors between their ‘outdoor’ area and the street, but no barriers between this den of carcinogens and the ‘interior’, so that cold, smoky air kept drifting inside. Since neither of us had lungs that were in a mood for this, we had to stick to the seating area right at the back.
At least it was pleasantly cosy back there, despite the inconvenience of having to make one’s way to the front to order from the bar. The decor played up the 1970s kitsch side of cod-Spanish culture, including a bas-relief beast labelled “the Burton Bull”, which was puzzling because it wasn’t crossing its arms and airily dismissing other cultures.
Familiar tapas bar staples such as patatas bravas and potato and Serrano ham croquettes were moreish, though deep-fried carbs with spicy sauce is a universal culinary language that’s hard to get wrong. The provolone dish was more of a revelation: a plate of sizzling, bubbling gooey cheese with rosemary and chilli oil, almost a spicy fondue.
Grilled sardines proved trickier to eat. Unlike the oily morsels that arrive in cans, these fresh, glistening leviathans stared up at us with cold, vengeful eyes. Crunching up the vertebrae of these sea-beasts didn’t seem an option, so we worked our way around the spiky bones, and were rewarded with delicate, lemon-scented flesh and lightly crisp paprika-dusted skin.
For mains, my date chose chicken pieces with white beans and rice, while I went with the chorizo beef and paprika burger. The former was a hearty stew served in a rustic bowl, with a pleasant tang from spiced onions and yogurt. The latter, while hardly authentic, was a massive, satisfying meal in itself. As well as the fat beef patty and slices of smoky chorizo, the buns contained melted Cheddar, caramelised onion, and a salad of tomato, mesclun and roast capsicum, all dripping with aioli. This was accompanied by a side of patatas bravas larger than the tapas serving. The result was not subtle, but undeniably delicious, and superb value.
We made space for the obligatory churros, which were slightly too sweet, but they went down nicely with a glass of Valdespino Pedro Ximenez sherry. Incidentally, this is what the barman had originally returned with when I asked for a Manzanilla with our tapas. He seemed bewildered that anyone would ask for sherry, despite the fact that they’re a classic tapas match, and they had four on their list: “You’re the first to order that in the two weeks we’ve been open.” Overall, the service was genial, and even if the staff seemed more at home pulling pints than negotiating the more Iberian regions of their drinks list, the convivial atmosphere suited their populist take on Basque food.[warning]
Address: 8 Courtenay Place, Te Aro
Phone: 04 802 5585
Cost: Tapas $6–16; mains $20–28
Open: Mon–Sun 3pm–3am
Drink: Sagra Roja Red Ale $10; Codice Tempranillo $8/glass, $36/bottle[/warning]