Prior to this recent visit, I had not been to the Sol Y Sombra in Broughty Ferry for a very long time and am now embarrassed to admit that I am not sure why this was the case.
Apart from the coronavirus pandemic there was no good reason not to have visited this classic more regularly and now, having rekindled its enduring charms, I would happily go once a week if I could be assured of as good a time as four of us had on a recent Saturday lunch.
I have some history with this place as it became a bit of a home away from home when I returned to Tayside from London. I quickly learned to love the restaurant, the bar and, above all, the hospitality of the owners – led by the shy and withdrawn Phil Stewart, who has become a good friend.
Sol and Sombra
Several nights I sat partying in this place and it’s amazing how quickly you can believe you operate later on Spanish meals when you have another bottle full of Casa Albali by your side.
For this reason I have to state here that I couldn’t hide from Phil that I was going to revisit his restaurant as any idea of going there anonymously would only have worked if he wasn’t there – and he is almost always there.
He is a guy who defines the art of hospitality in that I would say he is easily the best restaurateur in Dundee. He’s also probably the best maitre d’, the best sommelier, the best waiter and the best comedian to ever run a classic Dundee restaurant – and we should all be grateful for that.
Phil Stewart is everywhere in this space and he defines it so much that his presence is apparent in every detail. He truly cares about his customers and the pride he takes in giving them the best experience is palpable. In fact, it’s so connected to the Sol Y Sombra that I and many others just know it as Phil’s house or just the tapas bar, and that’s what I’m now going to call it here.
What do we look for in a restaurant, other than great food and good service? What makes us leave some places with a big smile on our face and run away from others wishing we had cooked puttanesca pasta at home?
I would say that we often crave a touch of magic – that indefinable spark that can turn a good experience into a great one. The best restaurants apparently achieve this without even trying.
The Tapas Bar is such a place.
Much of the restaurant experience comes from the ambiance, and the atmosphere here is so relaxed and conducive to relaxation that you forget the time of day.
That’s a good thing, especially if you drink at lunchtime, which we were on this occasion.
The business helped me a lot because I was joined by Gillian Lord, editor of The Courier, Joy Melville, Gillian’s sister-in-law, and Mary-Jane Duncan, columnist, cafe owner and good egg from all points of view.
There was never a concern that the conversation would dry up.
I arrived ready to have a good time as I already know Gillian and Mary-Jane, and Joy’s reputation as a bon vivant and wit preceded her, not least because she is a tremendously entertaining social media presence. .
I have to say that I haven’t laughed so much at lunch in a very long time. The Tapas Bar is an environment that encourages this. I challenge anyone not to have a good time here.
It’s actually a bit of a Dundee institution now, having been open since 2010, and it was certainly one of the first of a new group of restaurants trying to shake up the city’s food scene.
The aim here is to recreate the atmosphere of a typical Spanish family meal and in this they totally succeed.
Sharing is encouraged – and necessary – because there are so many dishes and sharing really is the best way to enjoy them.
Lunch is £19.50pp and dinner is £27.50 (excluding desserts), which is remarkably good for the quality and quantity of food that will be delivered to your table.
Don’t let that scare you off as the portions here are generous but manageable and the variety of dishes means you’ll constantly come across varying tastes and textures in your meal.
It’s a great place for a crowd although it’s a place that would work for any number of people.
I’ve been here with just one person before, a first date that wasn’t entirely successful because Phil made me laugh so much I forgot to pay attention to my potential new life partner. It’s safe to say there was no sangria in the park that day, although I did return to Phil’s for a drink after the date was over.
Today, however, is all merry and the very drinkable house white (£20) is poured and the very Dundee banter is flowing.
Phil to Joy, as he approached our table: “Are you Joy Melville?
Joy to Phil, who never skips a beat: “It depends on what you ask for!”
Let the bacchanalia begin.
The appetizer was a mixture of nuts and pickled olives and Gillian has previously said the olives were the best she had ever eaten in Dundee. Marinated in garlic, rosemary, parsley, thyme, red peppers, oregano, bay leaf, sweet pepper and olive oil, how could they not taste different what superlative?
Cold tapas included a punchy aioli, queso palancares con membrillo (a goat’s cheese from Murcia, matured in red wine and served with quince paste), boquerones en vinagre (marinated anchovies with Marcona almonds), ensalata de verduras (mixed salad), Iberico de Bellota chorizo and Moroccan-style fruit couscous served with caramelized onions.
They were all delicious, especially the anchovies and the chorizo which is Iberian free range pig, fed on a diet of acorns, the meat then being brined for six months.
By then I was in tears of laughter at the conversation around the table, bolstered by the fact that Phil decided to massage my shoulders as I laughed in a joking (and futile) attempt to get a 10/10 review here. I had to tell him that the reviews had peaked at five, at which point the free massage abruptly ended and he resumed serving our food.
The hot tapas were; patatas bravas, skewers of chicken, chorizo and morilla de Burgos (the best type of Spanish black pudding, made with rice), gambas al Pil Pil (the prawns anointed with garlic, white wine, parsley, chilli and chilli), Coley pan-fried with smoked paprika sauce, crispy broccoli with Serrano ham and a bold salsa verde, and Galician squid and king prawn stew.
Vegetarian Joy had her own selection of dishes, including halloumi skewers, aubergine, zucchini, pepper and tomato stew, Spanish omelette, fried Padron peppers and vegetable fideua (a similar dish paella but made with Valencian pasta instead of Calasparra rice).
We finished with a few desserts and I particularly enjoyed my orange sorbet served in an orange as it brought a wonderful meal to a refreshingly refreshing ending.
That’s a lot of joy for 19.50 and in fact joy is what defined this meal and this restaurant.
Sharing food like this reminded me of not only the pleasure of eating together, but also the sheer pleasure of indulging in laughter and good times. This, of course, is at the heart of many of the best cuisines in the world and is very evident in all things Spanish cuisine.
This is why so many of us enjoy learning about new cultures and cuisines, and why it often causes us to question our own ideas and way of life. This is why we travel.
In Spain, for example, lunch is any time after 2 p.m. and dinner never before 8 p.m. and often much, much later. Many offices and shops still close between 2 and 5 p.m., reflecting the fact that many Spaniards eat their main meal at midday. Fish is a favorite protein, and the variety of fresh fish offered even in supermarkets is much better than here.
But really, the main difference in Spanish food culture is the fact that most dishes are shared and it’s this aspect – along with some stellar ingredients and honest, brave cooking – that is celebrated at Sol Y Sombra.
Just as a restaurant like London’s River Café was heavily influenced by home cooking recipes, Sol Y Sombra aims to provide an authentic Spanish experience for its customers.
Gillian mentioned to me afterwards that she had eaten there a lot over the years and it was incredibly consistent. She commented on how the food was good simple cooking using great ingredients and that she loved all the drama about going there. I totally agree.
Joy, who has a home in Spain, said Phil’s knowledge of the food he served was absolutely spot on and the service was warm and friendly. When she asked for alcohol on her cheesecake, Phil simply got a bottle of Chambord and washed it down – a delicious touch.
Mary-Jane simply said how lovely it was and how Phil’s understated descriptions and stories sounded like an extra family member seamlessly stepping in and out of the conversation. All of this is true.
This place defines bonhomie and the art of hospitality. The food is excellent and you will leave here with a big smile on your face, as we all did.
As for getting back here, the manana can’t come soon enough for me…
Address: Sol Y Sombra Tapas Bar, 27 Gray Street, Broughty Ferry DD5 2BH
P: 01382 776941
Price: Lunch £19.50; dinner £27.50
- Food: 5/5
- Performance: 5/5
- Surroundings: 5/5
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[Sol Y Sombra Tapas Bar in Broughty Ferry]