Derry City has Galway vibes. This was the verdict of our youngest after a family day trip to Maiden City during Twixmas. We went to the Tower Museum, walked around the walled circumference of the Old Town, paid homage to the Free Derry corner, and tried unsuccessfully to enter Peadar O’Donnell’s (there was no room at the hostel thanks to Covid seating restrictions). And when we walked through the doors of El Tapas Grá for something to eat before heading back to Belfast, I knew exactly what she meant.
rockin ‘, pumpin’ the soundtrack greets you. It’s loud enough to stomp your foot, but not so much that it turns the conversation into a screaming match. The reception staff are in the know and immediately after checking our vaccination QR codes we waste no time wandering through the cozy bare brick and wood-paneled dining room to a table by the window overlooking bustling Waterloo Square and take a drink order.
Sáne Stewart, a catering professional with many years of experience in the kitchens of top restaurants in Belfast and beyond, opened El Tapas Grá around ten minutes before the Covid lockdown hit the country in March 2020. The fact that the place is still able to open at all is a tribute to him and his team. The fact that the food is so good is a determining factor in this regard. People will always go where the quality is and El Tapas Grá is the quality of the destination restaurant.
In recent years, the city has seen excellent restaurants and street food stores flourish: Mekong, The Primrose, Pyke & Pommes, Nonna’s, Spaghetti Junction, Walled City Brewery, the Pickled Duck, the Sooty Olive, Brown’s and d ‘Others have collectively generated enough momentum for the City of Derry and Strabane District Council to justify its commitment to promoting the region as a culinary destination. The board deserves to be recognized for this support.
El Tapas Grá’s small plates are a distinctly Derry interpretation of the Spanish principle. They’re generous and bountiful in the Northwest, and on the international tableware weights and measures register, the Derry Small Plate fits like a plate everywhere else.
The menu suggests that five or six of these dishes would be enough for two people. There were four of us and it was out of pure greed that, in the end, made us pay the addition of 19 dishes. We couldn’t help it. The first wave of mixed olives, Catalan bread with tomatoes, bites of crispy salty and sweet kale and bacon told us that something fabulous was happening in the kitchen.
We quickly went back to the menu to see what else we could have in a second wave and that’s when we stumbled upon the must-have tapas vortex. Halloumi fries served with a tangy sweet and sour pepper jam, sweet and tender pork belly bites with the exceptional and locally brewed Lo & Slo sauce, thin and crispy calamari and the unforgettable chorizo candies have us happily. bombarded with their flavors and textures until we hit the end point and because it was perfect we burst out laughing: Manchego based mac and cheese.
Mac and cheese is the holy grail of the treat catalog for young people of the 21st century. But it’s not always finely done. The macaroni are often overdone, the sauce too floury and the quality of the cheese poor. Sáne Stewart broke down the solid Spanish oak door to the convention and created something very cheeky and very fine. Who would have thought that the subtle ovine flavors of Manchego could hack it?
Desserts from Crema Catalana that was a Santiago manual and tarta, shamefully vandalized by rapid and completely unnecessary warming of texture and flavor, close the curtains on dinner. During an after-dinner cocktail tour and alcohol-free Estrella Damm for Daddy, we promise you a return visit before the next Twixmas. Galway can wait.