Dave Lee finds El Toro in Hull has finally grabbed the bull by the horns when it comes to authentic tapas.
One of the problems facing anyone opening a tapas restaurant is that virtually everyone in the UK is now very familiar with Spanish cuisine. Sure, there are a few people who insist on only consuming egg and chips and Carling Black Label when they go on a stag weekend to Magaluf, but pretty much everyone else has been to Spain and spent sunny afternoons sampling terracotta dishes filled with pescado-y, chorizo-y, patatas-y or manchego-y delights. There must be a few remaining souls who have never made it to the Costas but there are definitely in the minority; after half a century or so of package holidays we all know our tapas from our elbows.
I’m no different. Rarely a year goes by where I don’t spend some time in Spain and moseying around snaffling tapas has become my preferred method of relaxation as it at least involves some form of exercise. I also make a mean paella (if I say so myself) and can do any number of delicious things with a chorizo (but then again, who can’t?) so when I first visited El Toro – just after it opened last year – I was one of those annoying customers who sat pontificating about the inauthenticity of the dishes and muttering “not even as good as I can do it myself” as if I’m some sort of long-lost grandchild of Don Quixote himself.
To be fair to me, the food they served me that night wasn’t great and to be fair to them, it was a Monday night about two weeks after they’d opened their doors so they will have still been finding their feet and may well have not had the main chef on. Since then I’ve heard encouraging things about El Toro so I thought I’d give it another go and when I roll up on a busy Friday afternoon to sit at the bar the sun decides to shine so bright that only the Hull accents betray the fact we aren’t in Andalucia.
I tried to discover more about those behind El Toro but was met with mostly obfuscation. I gathered that Abu Sohel is the restaurant manager and Justin Wilson (catchphrase: “Ow, are you, me mate”) runs the bar, but all I could learn of the restaurant’s owner is that he has some Bangladeshi restaurants in unknown locations and is opening another branch of El Toro in Doncaster soon. I assume it will have the same tiled, round tables, wrought iron furniture and bullfighting-themed wallpaper that makes the Hull branch feel a little like it’s already one of a chain. I could unearth nothing whatsoever about the chef, but I think I saw him in the kitchen a couple of times looking very hot and busy but not very Spanish.
El Toro appears to market itself toward those seeking to relive their Mediterranean jaunts – there is a chalk board outside saying “free tapas when you buy a drink at the bar, just like on holiday” – and when I am in there is a raucous hen party taking up a long table in the main dining room. They are all clad in too-tight clothing and cackle whenever one of them pretends to speak Spanish by adding an “o” to the end of a sentence delivered in English. The scene is akin to a Beryl Cook painting re-imagined by Hieronymus Bosch.
If all this sounds as if I disliked El Toro, it isn’t meant to. The food has improved immensely and while the décor is a little clichéd, it definitely helps you feel a bit more Spanish than you have any right to while sitting down Princes Avenue.
I can recommend that you check the regularly-rotated specials, on my visit these include a very flavourful fabada bean and meat stew and some marvellous deep fried padron peppers. Prices vary from £3 to £5 for small portions of patatas bravas or brochette de verduras up to £11 for langoustines. I had five dishes and a couple of Mahou beers and spent around £35, so El Toro is cheap-ish but not so inexpensive that you will happily brush off less successful dishes. Those included patatas con cabralles (fried potatoes with Spanish blue cheese and cream sauce) wherein perfectly good patatas were sat wasted in a thin, ungenerous cheesy puddle and chorizo con sidre, which tasted not a jot of cider and actually more resembled chunks of chorizo simply cooked in their own oil.
Pick of the dishes were pisto manchego, which is a sort of ratatouille served with potatoes and cheese and topped with a fried egg, and a plate of mixed fried fish served with alioli, which tasted as good as anything like it I’ve ever had in actual Spain.
As for the paella, it was pretty good. I only had a tapas-sized portion and I fear that any more would prove a tad on the claggy side, but at least I will now no longer complain that I can do better at home.
I’ll be back in El Toro soon. I don’t think I’d go for a proper sit down with company as it doesn’t strike me as a place that does that too well and, anyway, it’s not the way I like to eat tapas.
No, when I go back I’ll sit at the bar with a book and order occasional beers and whichever small dishes of food take my eye in the chiller or grilling on the plancha. Y’know, just like you do on holiday.
• El Toro, 45-47 Princes Avenue, Hull HU5 3RX. 01482 342237, www.eltorohull.co.uk. Open Monday to Thursday, 4-12pm; Friday to Sunday, 12pm-12am.