In one of York’s overlooked lanes, Jill Turton finds the real Iberian experience away from pervasive chain restaurants.
Independent restaurants in prime city centre locations are as rare as hen’s teeth these days. Not quite non-existent since boffins have actually succeeded in making chickens grow teeth but still exceedingly rare.
Witness the new Trinity Shopping Centre in Leeds which boasts among its one million square feet of mall, 120 shops and 20 restaurants, some of them relocating from other city centre sites just to be there. Naturally they’re dominated by chains: Carluccio, Wagamama, Café Rouge, all useful in their way but, well, predictable. There are plans for a roster of street food vans, including Leeds’s Manjit’s Kitchen, which will be winched in to trade for a month in turn.
York’s city centre pedestrian streets are similarly overrun with chains that squeeze the independent traders out to the fringes but keep your eyes peeled for a blackboard on Market Street. It should point you down Peter Lane, one of those York snickelways that lacks the charisma or intrigue to be on the tourist map or ghost trails. Here, lurking in the shadows, is the hen’s tooth prize of De Clare’s Restaurant to be renamed as from Monday, Cabra Verde or Green Goat, to more accurately reflect its Spanish flavour.
Simply, it serves some of the most impressive Spanish food I’ve tasted this side of San Sebastian. A big claim so a little history first: seven years ago the owner Clare Prowse opened the smart little deli De Clare’s on Lendal selling proper sandwiches, distinctive salad boxes, well-sourced cheeses and hams. Also on sale were some select Spanish ingredients, too, tins of smoked paprika, olive oil, Marcona almonds, chorizo sausage and nutty Manchego cheese.
The formula worked. You could and still can abstain from Costa on the corner and perch here for a superior coffee and a bite, but three years ago Clare took the gamble of opening a grown-up restaurant in Peter Lane. At first they dabbled with Spanish, Italian and a bit of modern British but always with a tempting window of ridiculously come-hither cakes. Now they’ve gone exclusively Spanish under the direction of Portuguese chef Celia Marcos de Jesus Mendao.
The menu is made up of mains, specials and tapas. There are grills such as sea bass, rib eye steak and grilled vegetables with romesco sauce and plates of cheese or ham. The tender, sweet Ibérico pata negra comes from the acorn-fed, black Iberian pigs. It’s sliced paper-thin from the whole ham and served with bread, olive oil and Pedro Ximenez vinegar.
We began in true Spanish style with sherry and almonds. Not any old sherry this, but a shot of the heavenly, sweet and raisiny Pedro Ximénez (or PX). Not any old nuts but deliciously crunchy Marcona almonds. We can also vouch for the excellence of the Iberico ham after a small plate was served to us “on the house”.
Then we shared six tapas beginning with pinchos de pollo, gently spiced chicken kebabs on sticks with a light alioli. Next up, sardines – split, boned and marinated in lemon and paprika then fried in breadcrumbs. A plate of Mahon cheese from Menorca came in thin slices drizzled with honey and served with green figs preserved in syrup – a wonderful salt, sweet, tangy combo.
The tortilla Espanola was nearly, though not quite, as good as the one my Spanish neighbour makes – it’s hard to beat it warm, straight from the pan. The salad of Padron peppers anchovies and walnuts was another winner but the biggest swoon factor kicked in with deep fried squid rings Andalusian style with grilled apple and black pudding an inspired match of crunchy, salty squid rings paired with earthy black pudding and a touch of apple sweetness.
There’s nothing obviously Spanish about the room which is bold white, with white walls, white round tables and chic white chairs but the food transported us.
We were the last table still eating and when chef comes out and you are forced into embarrassing handshakes, it usually spells the kiss of death but we couldn’t begrudge the diminutive, cheerful Celia who bubbled with enthusiasm for Spanish and her native Portuguese food – similar, she said, while acknowledging that Spanish is the richer and more varied cuisine.
Celia disappeared for our desserts: meringues and cream and Tarta de Santiago a flourless tart made with orange zest and ground almonds and famously found in the bakeries of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia – marked with a cross to commemorate St James the Apostle. It went especially well with another glass of that fruity PX. Worth mentioning, too, a short, sharp list of Spanish wine.
Then before we could leave, Celia hurried out of the kitchen with a dessert she was working on: “Try this, tell me what you think”. It was a soft, sweet, almost liquid crème caramel, topped with more of those crushed, salty Marcona almonds and was just brilliant. Side street indie with soul or chain food in the shopping mall? No contest.
Cabra Verde, 1 Peter Lane, York YO1 8SW. 01904 652920, www.carbraverde.co.uk. Open: Monday to Wednesday, 11am-5pm. Thursday to Friday, 11am-9pm. Saturday, 9.30am-9pm. Sunday, 9.30am-5pm. Price: About £25 per person plus wine.