Lisbon Tapas, 6 Church Street, Wrexham LL13 8LS (01978 362264). Small plates £5.75-£9.95, mains £14.95-£26.95, pastel de nata £4.10, wines (litre) from £19.95
Sometimes the sheer likability of a place trumps everything. Yes, some of the bread may bear a striking resemblance to the low-GI stuff sold by one of the supermarkets. And you may not be entirely sure what the red pepper hummus is doing on the menu of an ostensibly Portuguese restaurant. But doubts like these can be quietly smothered by something else: not just the good dishes, of which there are a fair few, but also the intangibles; mostly the sense of a place that is genuinely pleased to see you, and wants you to have a nice time. And so to Lisbon Tapas, pressed up against the imposing gates to St Giles’ church in Wrexham. It’s a small restaurant where silent video walking tours of the Portuguese capital play on TV screens, where the sturdy house white comes in chilled carafes at a price that reminds you what eating out used to be like, and where dinner ends with a free shot of one of those ill-advised liqueurs.
If this reads like a slightly random choice of a restaurant to review, it both is and it isn’t. As I might have mentioned before in a thoroughly low-key, unshowy way, I present BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet, the greatest food-themed radio programme on the planet. It reaches the parts other shows do not reach. We record 26 episodes a year, all over the UK. In 11 years and over 250 episodes we have been to all corners of the nations, and back again. This is a boon for a critic with a national brief because sometimes a show recording requires an overnight stay. Which in turn means we will need dinner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I get the job of choosing where we’re going.
The circumstances create an interesting set of criteria. We will be a group of around eight, which means it needs to be a laid-back, elbows-on-the-table sort of place. We don’t want waiters reciting the contents of dishes we’ve already read on the menu, as they put the plates down. (Actually, I never want that, but you get the idea.) We are on BBC budgets, even if I do sometimes end up taking a portion of the bill because I decide to review. That means we should go easy on the lobster, the Pétrus and the gold leaf. We are tired. There may be various dietary requirements. And so on.
Over the years, what at first I saw as a trial I now see as an opportunity; a chance to snuffle out restaurant joys which might otherwise not find their way into a column like this. A few years ago, it led me to Manning’s in Truro, where a ludicrously eclectic hotel menu was far better than it had any right to be. It led us to Persian Cottage in Middlesbrough and more recently to the delightful Toot in Plymouth. And now we have arrived at the door of Lisbon Tapas where a nice chap with a finely cropped beard and twinkly eyes is bringing out the wine at £19.95 a litre. The list says “Port Valley Wine”. I have no idea what that is. Presumably it’s wine from the Port Valley. But it’s crisp and dry and very much does the job. Now we are being given options. We can make our own choices or, for £25 a head, he’ll bring us roughly 75% of the small plates. Yes please. Do that.
The early dishes fall under the heading “sustenance after a long working day”. There’s the chunky bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip into for anyone nostalgic for that late 90s moment when we felt newly sophisticated. There are slightly brackish black olives and that red pepper hummus. There are green beans deep-fried in a heavy batter overcoat with sweet chilli sauce, possibly an overflow from the sweet chilli lake at The Botanist, to dip them into. Oh well.
Then the seafood arrives. The Portuguese are good at seafood. They don’t muck about with it. They let it do its thing. Here’s a big bowl of thumbnail-sized clams for £7.25, steamed open in white wine and garlic, so their own juices boost the broth. They are waiting to be sucked off the shell. Suddenly the big, soft swabs of bread have a real purpose. They hold together well when dredged through the liquor. Nab one of the coriander fronds with which the bowl is dressed for greenery. There are big prawns, heads and shells intact, which is as it should be, this time in a rust-coloured broth heavy with smoky paprika. Give those heads a good suck. Call for more napkins. Hold a few back for the mussels which come in a deep tomato broth which also deserves attention.
There are fried potatoes soaking up hot savoury liquids under a duvet of spiced tomato sauce, and salt cod croquettes, which are properly dense and springy. The last dish to arrive is a plate of thinly sliced pieces of heavily seasoned pork belly, which have been fiercely grilled until the fat is crisped in some places and translucent in others and running all over. If I were to find myself here again, I suspect the best way to go would be a few of those seafood dishes to start, followed by the grills: the smoky charred chicken and chorizo skewers, or the meaty ribs or the steaks.
There are pastel de nata to finish, and who wouldn’t want a mouthful of sweet, soft custard plus flaky pastry crumbs down their front? By now the boss has taken a shine to us. He brings us thimble glasses of a cherry liqueur the colour of night, which comes complete with a stone-in cherry at the bottom. It has that fierce alcoholic burn that you get with the odd spirits you drink on holiday and get all romantic about. I mean this in a very good way.
Up by the till there is a blackboard sign which says: “A very BIG thank you to: Escoffier, Auguste, César Ritz, Savoy, for dignifying our industry.” This slightly jumbled set of names, referencing the most glamorous hotel of the late 19th century and the boldly moustachioed men behind it, could be taken as a little overblown for a modest Portuguese place in north Wales. Then again what links them is hospitality, the business of looking after people, especially when they need looking after, as we did. That’s exactly what Lisbon Tapas did. And we were grateful for it.
The French restaurant group Bistrot Pierre has launched an app-based loyalty scheme called Club Bistrot Pierre. For every £1 spent at one of the 17 restaurants across the country, which are spread from Preston through Birmingham to Torquay and Eastbourne, members earn 5p of so-called ‘Bistrot Pounds’. Those pounds are then redeemable against future bills (bistrotpierre.co.uk).
The team behind the once groundbreaking Sichuan restaurant Barshu are to introduce Londoners to the food of another part of China with the opening of a café focusing on the coastal Qingdao region. The grandly named Eight Hundred Flavours will occupy a tall, narrow site on the edge of Chinatown, which was previously home to Baiwei and then a noodle house. Dishes will include steamed fish dumplings, fish fillets with noodles and a variety of skewers.
The Indian restaurant favourite Dishoom is to open a new venture in Brighton under the Permit Room brand, which it already uses on the ready-to-drink cocktail range available from its website. The title comes from the nickname for bars under the Mumbai Prohibition Act of 1949. The new business, which will be located within the city’s Lanes, will apparently be closer to a bar than a restaurant. Dishoom has run a dark kitchen in Brighton for deliveries since 2020 (dishoom.com).
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