In March, I took La Tasca at Gunwharf Quays to task in this column for its take on Spanish tapas. This chain, despite its website claims to offer ‘the true taste of Spain’, was far from convincing.
So would Chichester’s El Castizo raise the bar when it comes to this iconic Spanish light bite food?
It’s a small, family-run restaurant, with Diana the Spanish-born chef heading the kitchen and Englishman James in charge of front of house.
They don’t go down the hyperbole route on their modest website. ‘Fine food with friends’ is what they say they provide. Fine and dandy.
No more hype is found in the converted, vaulted wine cellar either, just simple Spanish artefacts gracing the walls. Any on-view guitars are put to use some evenings rather than just being used as a symbol.
James is a remarkable host. His natural abilities make everyone feel at home and his staff are attuned to the ethos of the restaurant – simple food served with genuine hospitality, a Cheers-type mentality.
The menu is what you would find in small bars in the Iberian Peninsula. There is no tweaking of dishes to be found here. They use proper, authentic ingredients and the home cooking and presentation is carefully, thoughtfully judged.
Come here for pa amb tomaquet (toasted bread with garlic, tomato and olive oil); patatas bravas (cubed potatoes with spicy sauce); croquetas de pollo (chicken and Serrano ham); chuletas con pimientos (lamb with peppers); albigondas en salsa de tomate (meatballs in a tomato cream sauce); calamares; pincho de gambas (prawns and garlic); boquerones (whitebait); bacalao (salt cod with peppers, tomatoes, white wine) and, of course, paella. Finish with a crema catalana or similar.
Eight of us piled in one evening after an event at the nearby Chichester Cinema at New Park and ordered a selection of the above as well as an excellent Spanish house red.
The food, unlike many tapas restaurants, was sent out gradually. No bun fights here, no dishes past their best as they sit around.
The squid, properly cooked and not the rubbery stuff usually experienced or cooked in oil that’s not hot enough, was perfection – as were the croquetas and the lamb, both showing off the cooking skills of the small kitchen.
The patatas bravas was so good it had to have a repeat order, as did the meatballs. Simplicity and understanding of tapas are the key to cooking of this calibre.
Most dishes are around the £4-£5 mark, making this an inexpensive meal out with friends. Or, as El Castizo puts it so succinctly, ‘fine food with friends’.
Why is it so difficult to emulate tapas on a large scale, as La Tasca and other chains endeavour to do? Quality ingredients plus basic, genuine knowledge of how to cook these dishes is all it takes.
My share of the bill came to under £17 including wine and service.
El Castizo, 24 St Pancras, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 7LT
Open: Tues-Sat Noon–2pm and 6pm–11pm
Food: Five (out of Five)
Disabled access: No wheelchair access as restaurant is down steps to basement.
How to get there: Take the A27 to Chichester, exit at the Witterings-Chichester Station roundabout, continue on this main thoroughfare to Market Road and St Pancras. El Castizo is on the left. On-street parking.