El Celler Spanish Tapas and Wine Bar
19a Main Street
Phone: 087 765 4155
Irish Daily Mail
7 January 2017
El Celler is, as the name implies, in a cellar. It’s right in the heart of Blackrock Market and where Canteen (now doing brilliant things in Celbridge) used to have a delightful little wine bar. It’s run by two very enthusiastic and friendly young people and, although distinctly subterranean, it’s cosy and welcoming.
While El Celler is far from perfect – it’s the kind of place I hope will eventually settle down and get everything right – it has a feeling of authenticity. Not so much in terms of the food, some of which is some distance from what the average Spaniard would condsider to be the real thing, but there’s a sense that these people are sharing with us stuff that they like, recipes they have accumulated. It’s homely, especially on a cold winter night when the big wood-burning stove keeps the place pleasantly toasty.
And speaking of toasty, we started with pa amb tomaquet, the Basque snack of sublime simplicity and which, to be honest, you rarely see done well in Ireland, especially in the depths of winter.
Basically, you toast some bread, rub it with a raw garlic clove and then, essentially, you grate a very ripe tomato against it until your toast looks like a painful accident. At this point you drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt.
At El Celler they take a more practical approach, given the season, and pulp the tomatoes – ones with plenty of flavour, amazingly – then mix in the oil and the garlic and Maldon sea salt (good choice), and spoon it all on the toasted baguette slices. You get four for €4.20 and we loved them.
Classic tortilla, the Spanish omelette that is more potato than egg, very simple and very good at its best, looked the part, even had the right texture but it was as sweet as a dessert. How do they do that? And why? We ate about 20c worth of its €4.50 price tag.
Padron peppers – those little green ones that I think of as Spanish roulette (most are sweet but every now and then there’s a nuclear one) – were very good, stuffed with a creamy combination of prawn and monkfish.
Croquetas of roast chicken were decidedly odd. The menu mentioned bechamel which is as it should be. Croquetas are made with a very thick bechamel (oil, flour and milk cooked together) enriched with whatever meat you wish, usually jamon. The bechamel melts within when deep-fried and becomes liquid.
These croquetas were, in effect, nuggets of minced chicken encased in a crisp jacket of breadcrumbs. No hardship to eat, admittedly, if rather dry, but not croquetas within the generally accepted definition. And where was the bechamel? Was it there just homepathically? They cost €5.80.
Bunuelos de bacalao (€6.50) or cod fritters were very simple and pleasant, simply small pieces of fish encased in a crisp batter. Crisp, not limp.
Unlike the calamares, deep-fried squid at €5.95. And who has ever ordered deep-fried squid expecting anything other than crisp, I wonder. The saffron mayo was fine.
Albondigas, meatballs fashioned from pork and beef, served with a rustic tomato sauce and sweet Ramira peppers, were the star of the evening: they had substance, flavour, depth and were €6 well spent.
We shared a crema Catalana for pudding, the classic Catalunyan caramel custard flavoured with a touch of cinnamon. This version was a bit too heavy on the spice, for us, and was a bit underwhelming.
Underwhelmed as we were by the many of the dishes we ordered, we rather liked this modest, friendly little restaurant. We just felt that the approach in the kitchen needs to get more exacting and it might be an idea to get a few classic Spanish cookbooks.
We also liked the enthusiasm. The menu, listing the grilled prawns, adds “the best bit is in its head, full of flavour... so don’t forget to suck it, it’s all about this”.
The proprietors knew that we were not wildly impressed by much of what we ordered and so didn’t charge for a bottle of wine nor for the crema Catalana. As I was in full conversational spate when paying the bill, I didn’t notice the discrepancy.
Normally, I would have insisted on paying in full for reviewing purposes but my companion on this occasion was of the “whatever you do, don’t make a fuss” persuasion, so I departed from proper restaurant critic protocol.
However, the gesture was well meant. The bill came to €64.25.
Should I find myself in Blackrock on a cold evening, I think I could persuade myself to go back. Certainly for some albondigas.