Chester strikes me as a place not difficult to find good food. Walking inside the city walls I was struck by the amount of independent bars and restaurants, each of them seemingly thriving in this rather lovely city. Had I not been so obsessive about planning every meal one month in advance, I think we would have been fine finding our own feeds by carelessly meandering about, casually looking in windows at menu’s. But I am that obsessive and the idea of careless meandering is almost as much of nightmare to me as lunch with Piers Morgan. I dig out the Michelin guide, consult the family as to what they want, and decide that we are having tapas for our Saturday evening dinner at Porta, even if Porta don’t know it yet, because this is 2017 and they don’t take reservations.
We arrive at the reasonable time at half six and the place is heaving. It’s a split-level restaurant; galley kitchen and waiting area through the doorway, eating levels both above and below. Our projected waiting time of thirty minutes ends up being half of that, and we are swiftly moved to a congested area on the bottom level where lighting levels are more suited to owls than humans. We order widely across the menu and watch the frantic service from the back of the room, as dishes are weaved between tables and to our barrel table by eager staff.
The first dishes to arrive are staples of any tapas restaurant. Tomato bread is exactly how it should be; toasted and lightly flavoured with garlic – the tomato on top a mush of natural sweetness. It tastes even better with drapes of Iberico ham, full of depth and intensity, which dissolves slowly on the tongue. A tortilla is one of the better examples I have had in this country – the egg mixture properly seasoned, the texture only just set and the potatoes properly cooked through. We are divided on the pickled chillies with some of the group saying that they taste only of vinegar. They are wrong. The chillies have lost some of the heat during the pickling process and have picked up an acerbic quality. I quickly finish the jar.
There were a couple of dishes that never worked as well, so I’ll mention these in the middle as part of the proverbial ‘shit sandwich’ that RBS managerial training taught me so well. Prawns. Fat ones that looked far juicier than in reality, marginal overcooked and bathing in a garlic butter fragrant with parsley. They are nice but unmemorable. Equally pleasant are croquettes that have nailed the texture but are lacking in pig flavour. Another plate has young broccoli with a romesco sauce that bullies the veg off the plate with a whack of garlic and pimento. As much as I love the red pepper condiment, the dish is out of sync with its components.
But then it all goes brilliantly again. Ox cheek has been long braised, with the slices finished on the plancha so that the Malliard reaction reinforces the bovine flavour throughout the spoonable meat. Picos de Europa is liberally topped with honey, sultanas, and caramelized walnuts, all of which gentle caress the pungent notes of the blue cheese. Dish of the night is the shoulder cut from an Iberico pig, served medium with a little salsa verde that cuts through it all with herby acidic notes. A confession; we shared much of the food, though I anticipated eating this alone on the grounds that pink pork would not be everyone’s taste. I was wrong. The plate disappears before I get to the third slice.
There is more. Of course there is; I am a glutton and the food is too good to turn down. We have more thinly sliced charcuterie with glistening fat, and potato bravos which would turn out to be a better home for the sauce that came with the broccoli. Lentils with chorizo would be a fitting way to finish. The dish was earthy and intense. We practically lick the bowl clean.
The price for all of the above and a fair amount of booze comes in at under £125.00 – I don’t need to tell you how much of a bargain that is. Porta is a fantastic place which highlights the best of Spanish cooking. The very best dishes live on their simplicity; they have nowhere to hide and nor should they – this is vibrant food with soul. I would urge you to book a table and try it for yourself. Except you can’t book a table – this is 2017, after all.
There is a wine bar that backs on to Porta which also merits a mention. Covino may be a month or so old, but the owner Chris exudes the sort of confidence in grape knowledge that makes you feel like your intelligence has improved just by being in his presence. It was recommended by one of the team at Sticky Walnut and was so good we went Friday, left with some wine for back at the house, and went again after our meal at Porta. Go grab one of those twelve seats and thank me afterwards. The place is a wine lovers dream.