La Taberna, Leeds: Tucked-away tapas bar brings a taste of Spain to the financial district

I’ve always been a fan of tapas. There’s something convivial about seemingly endless plates of food being delivered to your table to share, or perhaps the promise of more to come just appeals to my inner glutton. I say “share”, but at one point a few years back my wife refused to go out with me to a tapas restaurant following a previous visit where I apparently hoovered up the food without giving her a look in. In my defence everything came out at the same time and I panicked. In any case you snooze, you lose.

There are, of course, different ways of ‘doing’ tapas. Some places like to serve all the food at once while others tend to bring it out in stages. And at the risk of upsetting the purists I prefer the latter. If you’re pretty much anywhere in Spain you can devise your own tapas crawl going from one place to the next until you’ve had your fill – I did this in the northern Spanish city of Logrono (well worth a visit) and ended up in a bar where they only served mushrooms.

Tapas reminds me of holidays and sunshine and long, slow, boozy evening meals that inevitably end up with you having one too many glasses of vino. And I don’t know about you but I’m ready for all of the above. It feels like it’s either been raining or blowing a hooley for the past however many months and frankly I’m fed up with it. So perhaps I was subconsciously seeking a tantalising taste of summer when I paid a recent visit to La Taberna on a thoroughly dank Friday evening.

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Tucked away in a surprisingly spacious basement on York Place, in the city’s financial and legal quarter, it’s run by husband and wife team Andres and Vivi – he’s front of house and she’s in the kitchen, though she brings out some of the dishes herself, which is a nice touch. In 2018, La Taberna teamed up with Caracas Grill, focusing on Venezuelan food at lunchtime and Spanish tapas in the evening. Now it’s just La Taberna.

La TabernaLa Taberna
La Taberna

With its wooden tables, cushioned benches, red walls and chalkboard specials scribbled with such magical phrases as ‘croquetas del dia’, this is the kind of place you might stumble across in a side street in Seville, or some random hillside town in Rioja. The background music, all samba beats and jaunty pop tunes, adds to the ambience and the feeling that you’ve just arrived in town and stumbled merrily into the locals’ favourite haunt.

La Taberna regularly pops up on a bevy of online lists of good places to eat in Leeds and is very popular with the Tripadvisor crowd, though that’s not necessarily a barometer of good taste in my experience.

There’s nothing fancy about the rustic menu which is all about traditional Spanish favourites that we know and love. The same goes for the food itself, though in the best possible sense. I say this as a seasoned traveller (and eater) who has sampled the delights of San Sebastian’s many pintxos bars, guzzled down succulent gambas perched on a wonky bar stool in Madrid, and enjoyed paella cooked in a giant cauldron on a beach in La Herradura.

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We start with Pintxo de la Casa (toasted bread, Manchego and homemade jam). The warm bread comes as a slight, albeit welcome, surprise, softening the unctuous cheese without melting it. It’s a delicious plate of food that shows what alchemy can be conjured up with quality ingredients and a confident touch.

La Taberna in LeedsLa Taberna in Leeds
La Taberna in Leeds

Next up are the aforementioned croquetas of the day. I’m a sucker for croquetas and these don’t disappoint. Chicken wouldn’t be my first choice for a filling, but the subtle flavours and soft, creamy texture works a treat. I can’t have tapas without some patatas bravas and these are a generous bowl of crispy fried spuds covered in a good dollop of spicy brava sauce that has plenty of welly from the paprika heat.

The two meat dishes are particular high points. Done well, chargrilled lamb chops should combine luscious pink flesh with that unique primal flavour that only comes from cooking meat over flame, and these are done exceedingly well. So, too, are the meatballs. For such a seemingly simple dish it’s surprising how often they leave you feeling underwhelmed. But not here. Allowed to wallow in a rich, satisfying sauce, these are meltingly soft and among the best I’ve had in a long time.

The same level of care and precision is given to our fish dishes, including the ubiquitous fried calamari, another popular fixture on tapas menus around the world and another with a propensity to disappoint. In the wrong hands it can be like chewing through old rope, but here the buttery soft squid is lightly coated in a thin, crispy batter and the garlic aioli is the right side of piquant. It’s the kind of moreish plate of food that makes eating such a joy, and the same goes for the expertly cooked chargrilled octopus.

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In the name of research we squeeze in a chocolate fudge cake which while not quite reaching the heights of what came before is still very tasty, with ample chocolatey goo. It brings a welcome sweet note to finish things off after what has been a savoury masterclass.

Char-grilled Octopus, potatoes, spicy paprika, olive oil, sea salt.Char-grilled Octopus, potatoes, spicy paprika, olive oil, sea salt.
Char-grilled Octopus, potatoes, spicy paprika, olive oil, sea salt.

The service, like the welcome when we first walked in, was warm and genuine throughout the evening. The final bill, including service and a bottle of Rioja, came in at £117 for two, which is more than decent value for money for the quality of what we ate.

Good cooking isn’t rocket science but it is a skill and the team at La Taberna are clearly highly skilled. The food is authentic and generous and it’s easy to see why this jewel of a restaurant has garnered such a loyal band of regulars, of which I now count myself. In fact, I might just see if they’ve got any tables available this evening…

La Taberna, Britannia House, 16 York Place, Leeds. LS1 2EU. Tel: 0113 245 0871.

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