Jessica Hope is transported to the relaxed, cosy restaurants of Spain at Mesa Tapas and Bar, Bristol
Imagine a couple, scurrying out of a taxi into the winter air, attempting to dodge the bitterly cold wind produced from the back end of a storm. They cross the road, and a warm, inviting glow coming from a nearby restaurant draws them in. As they open the doors to this quaint eatery, they are transported from the blustery, dark, British days to the sunny salvation of a restaurant you might find on the side streets of Madrid.
This is Mesa Tapas and Bar, just around the corner from The Downs. Opened in March 2017 by chef Olly Gallery and Julian Faiello, who also run the Italian restaurant, Prego, opposite, Mesa is a take on Spanish tapas and small plates, and prides itself on its Iberian ingredients, wine and spirits.
My partner, Russell, and I had the pleasure of dining here on a Monday evening, when most restaurants all over Bristol usually see a dip in the number of diners compared to the rest of the week. However, this wasn’t the case for Mesa – it was bustling and nearly full by 7.30pm, maybe owing to the fact that the restaurant has a 20% off deal on Mondays, but most certainly because of the high quality of the dishes being produced in such a relaxed, friendly environment.
We were greeted by front-of-house chap Danny, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for Spanish cuisine and drinks shines through. He recommended we start by trying the Corpse Reviver cocktail, £8, which is a prohibition-style short drink of gin, Cocchi Americano, triple-sec and lemon juice. This was a refreshing and delicate drink – surprising for the strength of the alcohol in it – and cleansed my palate.
As we perused the menu, we enjoyed nibbling on the most beautiful, large Gordal olives, marinated in house with orange, bay and fennel, and a selection of dried almonds, giant corn and broad beans with salt and paprika (which my partner has talked enthusiastically about on numerous occasions since our visit), £3.50 each.
We ordered six dishes between two to share. They dishes came out promptly, brought to the table as soon as they hit the plate.
We began by digging into a plate of aubergine fries with cumin salt and miel de caña, £4.95. Now this is a crowd pleaser of a dish – even people who are put off by the texture of aubergine will be fans, for sure. Having been lightly fried, the aubergine wasn’t too greasy – usually prone to absorbing oil quickly. They were incredibly moreish, and the drizzle of miel de caña added a sweet stickiness to the dish that had us wanting more.
The next dish we delved into was slow-cooked cauliflower with coriander and spices, £4. The delicious aroma from the dish surrounded us as the dish came to the table. The cauliflower was soft, delicately spiced and was the perfect accompaniment to both the meat and fish dishes that next arrived from the kitchen.
The Adobo marinated chicken thighs with padron peppers and chilli yoghurt, £5.95, were succulent, smokey and with slight, golden crispy bits, adding to the deep flavour of the marinated meat. There was a subtle heat from the Padron peppers, and the yoghurt added a creamy, cool element to the dish.
We ordered from the specials board the scallops with morcilla (a spanish-style black pudding), spiced broad beans and membrillo, £9.50. These were by far the sweetest, juiciest scallops I have ever tasted. The morcilla just fell apart, complementing the scallops with an earthy, savoury touch, and the broad bean purée cut through the sweet flavours with its light spices.
Served next was the overnight brisket with patatas a lo pobre and romesco sauce, £7.50. The brisket melted in the mouth, while the patatas a lo pobre (made up of potatoes, green peppers and onion) soaked up the salty, savoury meat flavours. The romesco sauce added a pop of colour to the dish, the red peppers creating a sweet contrast. Both Russell and I agreed that if this was a main meal on its own, then this could be a hearty, comforting dish that you could enjoy in the dark of winter and would surely put a smile on your face.
Our final dish was octopus with Valencian style arrocina beans and mojo verde, £7.95. Chef Olly tells me that his team take great care with this octopus dish as we have all experienced how unfortunate overcooked octopus can be. However, this dish was delicate, perfectly cooked, and possibly the softest octopus I have ever tasted. The beans had a deep flavour having soaked up the sauce, and added a different texture to the dish.
Fully satisfied with our main meal, we mopped up the remains of the dishes with some warm, fresh sourdough bread, which was served with a side of olive oil (you could certainly taste the quality of the oil), which was infused with smoky paprika, £3.
Before jumping into the dessert menu, I tried a Montenegro Spritz – a take on the popular Aperol Spritz, £7.50. Danny makes this cocktail with Amaro Montenegro, spiced pink grapefruit and peppercorn syrup that is made in house, prosecco and topped with soda, ice and a piece of dehydrated pink grapefruit. This is a long, refreshing drink, with a hint of spice and citrus notes – you could imagine yourself drinking this in the height of summer owing to the fruity notes, or in front of the fire at Christmas with the warm, spicy flavours. Plus, it was served with a paper straw – no wasteful plastic ones in sight, hurrah!
The drinks menu features an extensive wine list that Danny has been crafting for some time, with a variety of options of white, rosé, red and sparkling wine, the majority originating from Spain, being served by the glass and the bottle. As you would expect from a Spanish restaurant, there is also a range of fortifieds to suit all tastes, from white port to dry sherries, served from £3.50 – £5 per 75ml glass. Plus there’s a selection of cold lager and cider to choose from, £3 – £5.75.
We finished our meal by sharing two desserts – the frozen Crema Catalana with orange torta and caramel shards, £4.95, and the dark chocolate and salted caramel pot with crème fraîche and chocolate crumble, £4.95. The frozen Crema Catalana, a custard similar to Crème brûlée, was beautifully presented, creamy, with subtle flavours of orange and caramel throughout – this was a light, satisfying dish to end the meal on.
While the dark chocolate and salted caramel pot was decadent and thick with a deep dark flavour that you could sink your spoon into. The salt in the caramel enhanced the flavours, the biscuit added texture, and the crème fraîche added a light contrast to the sweetness of the dish. We were left fighting for the last spoonful, with Russell scraping the bowl.
We ended the night with two glasses of deep Pedro Ximenez sherry, £5, and El Castaño Monastrell dessert wine, £5.50, which was simply like drinking a good jam – if you’re too full for a dessert, then just a glass of this will be a sweet way to finish the meal.
As we sat back, relaxing in our booth, Russell exclaimed that this was by far the best tapas he’s ever enjoyed. While the chefs and bar staff use plenty of Spanish ingredients to create authentic Mediterranean flavours, you can tell the meat and fish come from the butchers and fishmongers from literally down the road, and the veg is supplied by a greengrocers round the corner in Henleaze.
The food is fresh and authentic, the decor cosy and casual, and the service is friendly and attentive. As we look around the room, there are people eating on their own, mothers and daughters, groups of friends catching up, as well as couples enjoying a date night. It seems like it’s a place that everyone can enjoy and have a relaxed evening out.
Although the restaurant is outside of the city centre restaurant scene, it is usually packed out on Friday and Saturday nights – so booking at least two weeks in advance is advised. And getting a taxi to and from Mesa is definitely recommended – you won’t be able to resist the delicious range of cocktails, wines and beers on offer.
The prices for dishes are very reasonable, something that chef Olly wanted to keep quite low in order to appeal to everyone wanting good quality, Spanish cuisine. Vegetable tapas dishes are from £3.50 – £5.50 each, fish £4.95 – £7.95 and meat dishes £4.50 – £7.50. The desserts are from £3.95 – £4.95.