The La Tasca chain of Spanish restaurants opened in 1993 in Manchester and the empire is now 70-strong in the UK and US. The simple tapas concept of small dishes was a novelty back in the days of John Major as PM and the introduction of the National Lottery and Sunday shopping.
Now the company has decided to ‘improve core ingredients, introduce a more modern presentation’, with the tapas ‘true taste of Spain’ menu redesigned from scratch. It has also halved the number of dishes, with CEO Simon Wilkinson declaring positive feedback on resulting freshness and quality.
I decided to find out if those tapas matched any of the ones I’ve loved in Spain. Past visits to Gunwharf’s La Tasca and similar tapas chains have not convinced me they had anything to do with the mother country, a case of bland meets dull meets unauthentic.
The new menu offers the usual choices, including paella; chorizo; albondigas (meatballs); manchego croquetas (croquettes with aged manchego cheese, spinach); pescado blanco frito; gambas; three bean salad; anchovies; octopus; stuffed aubergine; tortilla Espanola and patatas bravas. Prices are around £4–£7 per tapas.
A staircase winds its circular way up to the upper floor and Spanish flags break up the bar and dining area. There’s a mishmash of chair and table styles and a large mural of chillies drying against a wall. Music is Eurovision-style.
Upstairs, the toilet doors need urgent attention with an oil can before driving bar staff and customers mad.
No less than five staff served me – one to show me to a table by the draughty front door, the second to take a drink order, the third a menu and so on. None returned to clear away. However, they were all very pleasant if not appearing particularly well-trained.
My choices were paella del dia (chicken, chorizo, peppers, chargrilled aubergine) with those manchego croquetas and the tortilla.
The dull rice came minus its chicken and aubergines. The croquetas arrived without the promised cheese. The cold tortilla was a solid, tasteless mass. It was served by waiter number five, who ignored table number 17 for over 40 minutes – time enough to seat three other tables, serve them dishes, clear their plates, get their payment and say adios.
Meanwhile I had pushed my unfinished plates to the other side of the table and tried to catch someone’s eye.
A decent glass of Merlot (but woefully overpriced at £4.90 for 175 ml) and the crunchy croquetas’ exterior were La Tasca’s only saving graces. The uneaten tortilla was removed from the bill.
Simon Wilkinson and his executive head chef need an urgent visit to Spanish cities and regions to research and replicate the Real Thing. The travesties I was served do no favours to fabulous tapas. My bill came to £15.55. I did not leave a tip.
La Tasca Restaurant and Bar, Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth
(023) 9286 4444
Open: 9.30am–11.30pm every day
Food: One (out of five)
Disabled access: Fine
How to get there: Follow the brown signs for Gunwharf Quays and its large car park. La Tasca is on the harbourfront to the left of the Spinnaker Tower.