El Sabio Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Winchester.

First impressions of El Sabio were not great. An exterior that could use a lick of paint led inside to a nearly empty restaurant at 7.30 on a Friday night.

We were shown to our seats by a wonderfully enthusiastic waiter and left to browse the menu. Drinks were chosen and served, although not without a hiccup, as a white Pinot Grigio arrived at the table rather than the rosé that had been ordered. We were left a little while longer to peruse the menu, which gave me pause to consider whether I had made a good choice of restaurant for our anniversary dinner.

The animated waiter returned to take our order, not before suggesting a starter for us and then proceeding to thrust it into our faces as it went past on its way to another table. We declined the waiters’ suggestion and opted for the Mozzarella stuffed Garlic Bread instead.

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It arrived at the table within a few minutes. It was, it has to be said, the safe option. Taking into account its location, the day of the week, time of day and the fact there were very few customers had made me wary from the outset and I wasn’t prepared to take any chances. There was nothing particularly spectacular about this “stuffed” version of the student staple. A baguette so light on the garlic it may as well had not been there and so heavy on the cheese it was overwhelming. Based on the experience so far, the future wasn’t looking good …

That was until the mains arrived at the table at which point, on sight alone, things immediately started to look up.

We had selected a range of tapas, trying to cover all the bases, from traditional Spanish, through meat, fish, and vegetarian.

A semi traditional paella was the first to be placed in front of us in the form of a Paella de Carne. The rice was cooked to perfection. Staying the right side of the line between cooked and a thick stodgy mess, it put a smile on my face instantly. Throughout the dish were small chunks of moist chicken and small discs of chorizo that carried a slight hint of spice that came through right at the end with peas and peppers each making their mark on the dish.

This was followed by Albóndigas Picante en Salsa de Tomate – Hampshire beef and pork meatballs served with a rich tomato sauce. For anyone who loves a good meatball, you have to visit this place. Ridiculously well-seasoned and tender meatballs, using locally sourced meat, just fell apart in the mouth. They weren’t lying when they said it came with a rich tomato sauce, it certainly was. I just wish there was more of it. The meatball to sauce ratio was heavily tilted in the favour of the meatballs and a reduction in the size of the meatballs, a touch more sauce and removing the silly, dry potato skin crisp would have made this the dish of the evening.

Pinchos de Cordero consisted of two spicy minced lamb skewers seasoned with an array of “secret spices” and served with a red onion salsa. This was easily my favourite dish of the night. Minced lamb packed full of flavour, the red onion salsa, carrying just the right amount of heat so as to not having you lunging for the nearest glass of water. When you can make the simplest of dishes taste this good, who needs complexity?

The seafood category was ticked off by Gambas Pil Pil. King prawns sautéed in olive oil, garlic and hot chilli peppers. Spice at El Sabio was something they were not afraid of using. Time and time again over several different dishes they demonstrated their ability to add heat to a dish, in this case chilli, without resulting in their diners tearing up.

Patatas Bravas o con Ali Oli was the penultimate dish of the main course. The skin, beautifully crispy giving way to a fluffy centre. There was just enough of the accompanying garlic mayo to complement the dish, before its thick, creamy texture became stomach-turning.

Salteado de Setas en Tostadas would be the dish to round off our selected tapas. On paper it sounded good. Sautéed mushrooms seasoned with garlic, sherry and parsley, served on toast and then topped with goat’s cheese. In reality? Not so much. A massive hit of umami coming from the mountain of mushrooms beneath the goat’s cheese, with the parsley being dumped on top, not adding the bitterness to balance the dish out like it perhaps should have.

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Desserts at El Sabio come in tapas sizes, having a choice of up to 3 per person from a list of 6 or 7. Erring on the side of caution we opted to share one selection of three desserts between us. The raspberry cheesecake with white chocolate shavings had a firm base with light cream cheese, sharpness from the raspberries and a sprinkle of white chocolate for texture that went down a treat. The trio of chocolate mousse was as indulgent as you would expect and the apple tart supplied the acidity my palate needed after the chocolate, balanced out by the sweetness of the tart casing.

Yet again my predilection for making snap judgements based on initial impressions has proved to be wrong. I should know better by now …

Not a great restaurant, but for good quality tapas it’s better than many of the chain alternatives and certainly worthy of return visits.

7/10

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