Over the years, there have been many attempts at tapas restaurants in Cape Town. At one time, it seemed to be a craze, with a tapas chain and even a supermarket getting in on the act.
None has made a success of it, though. The food has either been abysmal (the Café Sofia on Kloof Street had to close) or become so locally adulterated that it is only vaguely recognisable as having had a Spanish inspiration.
One place that tried seriously, though briefly, was Ultima Tapa on Long Street, but retaining a good Spanish chef and keeping an ambitious inventory of genuine ingredients made it pricey and ultimately unsustainable.
But in September, the Harbour House group launched La Parada nearby on Bree Street with a Spanish chef, after successfully testing the concept in Kalk Bay with the first La Parada in April.
Since opening, the Bree Street venue has been chock-a-block, seemingly all day – a workhorse of a drinking hole. Many a Cape Town restaurateur must be staring on in envy.
In the style of the popular, large tourist tapas bars in Barcelona, it has a constant turnover of people and long tables (some wood, some marble) that make it sociable. It has proven a great place to meet up with friends or colleagues for a drink and some nibbles, with the option to linger all night. The street front is especially popular as we enter summer.
Seating over 100 people, the place is buzzing, which is a positive way of saying it is phenomenally noisy. This is not a place for a romantic dinner. You're more likely to come here to arrange a divorce – no one will hear you scream.
There are two-litre jugs of sangria, cocktails infused with chorizo, and respectable wines sold by the glass at irresistible prices (R24 for a Brampton Sauvignon Blanc, R29 for a red Groote Post Old Man's Blend).
The décor is a major part of its appeal: Victorian pressed-tin ceiling, parquet floors, walls covered in Spanish posters, a large golden bull's head, and windows in the floor over the basement. Behind the bar are pictures of Salvador Dali and an official portrait of the King of Spain. Tapas, after all, owes its existence to a Spanish king, Alfonso X, who in the 13th century made it illegal for bars to serve alcohol without food.
Another business-savvy element is that the tapas can be ordered in small or larger portions. Prices are a snip too, between R15 to R22 for a small plate.
But the food could just as easily become a victim of La Parada's success. The tapas are nothing to rave about and, with the place bursting at the seams every night, there might not be much incentive to do anything about it.
Some dishes, such as the bland paella (in which the sofrito is more interesting than the rice), taste like little more than bulk bain-marie fare dished up on small plates.
Equally boring, in spite of a deluge of sprinkled paprika, is the octopus on potato. Another of the less
successful dishes is the chickpeas and chorizo – very shy on chorizo and overgenerous on a tomato sauce that makes one think of canned baked beans. The origanum-rich, smoked paprika "spicy steak" is too heavy with garlic and oil.
More successful are the soft calamari tentacles and tubes, slightly browned, with fresh salsa verde; the still slightly fibrous, cigar-shaped ham croquettes (though the round prawn croquettes are lamentable); the unimaginatively presented patatas bravas (the Spanish version of the French fry); and the toast with salmorejo (an Andalusian tomato-based purée) and Serrano ham.
The best dishes are the lamb with honey mustard, rosemary and garlic; the pleasantly spiced (I picked up cinnamon and anise) oxtail "cannelloni"; and, on one visit, the house tapas of yellowtail with a soft fried quail's egg on top. The Spanish omelette – mostly potato bound together with egg, some onion and a hint of bacon – has some first-rate mayonnaise on the side.
For dessert, you might try the Crema Catalana (a version of crème brûlée), which is custardy but has pleasant orange-blossom notes.
La Parada is a casual, convivial place for a good night out, where drink is plentiful and the food a sideline that will suffice.
La Parada, 107 Bree Street, Cape Town. Phone 021 424 2235.