Salamanca is a Dublin stalwart and although I’ve been a few times, it’s at least three or four years since I last ate there. This time my sister wanted to organise a family dinner to celebrate her graduation so we made a reservation for the nine of us. The Suffolk Street location is very central, which must definitely have helped the business weather the post-recession fallout, and, like us, I’d imagine a lot of people end up dining there because tapas is inherently amenable to large groups.
Some of our party were late by around twenty minutes, which I know can be infuriating from a restaurant’s perspective, but it took a further fifteen minutes once everyone had arrived for someone to take our order. It might not seem like much of an issue but Salamanca operates a booking policy where you only have the table for two hours. It’s not something I like, having to eat against a stopwatch, and it strikes me that in all the times I’ve eaten out in other countries I’ve never encountered this phenomenon. Have I just been very lucky or is this mainly a Dublin thing? Incidentally, we saw a few walk-ins (Spanish tourists, as it happens) being informed of the restriction before promptly becoming walk-outs.
Anyway, at least I had time to study the menu closely and it’s a fairly standard, if at times confused, affair: there are Asian style dishes and even a Tex-Mex stuffed pepper with sour cream in amongst your usual Spanish tapas. I nearly order a bizarre combination of pork belly, beef jus, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and pure [sic] chick peas out of sheer morbid curiosity. Even stranger sounding are the tiger prawns coated in ‘nachos flour’ (whatever that is) with pickled jalapeños and a sweet and sour sauce. In fact, there’s lots of tiger prawns featured in the seafood section, indicative of a chef unconcerned with provenance given he or she is willing to use a product responsible for destroying the wild populations and coastal areas of South-East Asia. Is it any wonder Ireland exports most of its world class shellfish when home-grown restaurants rely on these cheap imports?
Unsurprisingly, the food arrives quickly enough after we’ve made our choices and it’s quite uneven in quality. There’s some fantastic long braised octopus finished on the grill, a rich and smoky chickpea stew, excellent meatballs, robust and beefy but cut through with enough pork so they’re not like eating pellets and good chorizo cooked with red wine, although any tapas bar getting something so simple wrong is in big trouble. A couple of small steaks come out slightly overdone but are fine nonetheless; a paella just tastes like chicken and rice, when it should be so much more than that: my bet would be a weak stock (or maybe even something as fundamental as the sofrito) and I’d be surprised if it’s seen even a thread of saffron. There’s also a paltry portion of near rubbery calamari but worse is the grilled cod with mussels: the fish so overcooked it’s inedible, I leave it virtually uneaten and inform the waitress of the problem as the table is being cleared. She apologises (even though it’s not her fault) but unfortunately it’s not deducted from the bill.
Desserts are pretty much universally good although I don’t understand why they’re serving fresh strawberries in the middle of October when they taste of nothing at this time of year. There’s crepes filled with them on my sisters’ plate but the ice cream and butterscotch more than make up for it. I have a crema catalana, which is very well executed, and my dad gets some profiteroles smothered in chocolate sauce.
By now, it’s ten to eight, my parents are almost finished their coffee and we realise we’re close to turfing out time when out of nowhere the maitre d’ appears unrequested with the bill to hurry us up. I find this incredibly rude but I don’t want to cause a scene and ruin a special family occasion. It’s a bad way to end the meal and I’m tempted to walk out immediately without leaving a tip but our waitresses have been so good it’s not fair to punish them for something out of their control.
A few days later I wrote an email to the restaurant to express my disappointment at our experience and received a prompt and conciliatory reply. I’m told it’s their usual practice to bring the bill unannounced if the diners’ allotted time is nearly up and there was no intention to make us feel uncomfortable. While I still think a quiet word with the person who made the reservation would be a far more preferable approach we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Also, the unsatisfactory cod and mussels were supposed to be complimentary (in fact, any food not eaten, for whatever reason, goes free of charge) so that was just a genuine mistake. I was generously offered a sixty euro voucher by way of apology, which I declined as I felt it wasn’t right to make a profit of over fifty euro on something priced €8.95. I appreciated the sentiment though and I hope I’ve done my best here to be as fair in this review as possible.
However, I can’t help thinking Salamanca has become a bit complacent, the room was packed when we were leaving so I guess there’s little incentive or appetite for change. But a lot has happened over the past few years and with the likes of The Port House, Bar Pintxo, Tapas De Lola and even Viva Espana, the standard of tapas in Dublin is immeasurably better than before. Those that don’t adapt may eventually be left behind.