Illustration by Ben Beechener
Picture this. Hilary’s over and foodie birthday girl has been eagerly awaiting her family’s arrival on Saturday of 8th week. Why?
Because they have a booking at Arbequina.
She’s salivated over the menu, binge-read online reviews, and worn the jeans that will challenge her tapas consumption the least. A short walk from Magdalen roundabout down Cowley Road – actively ignoring the restaurant’s proximity to Temple Lounge – and they are here! From the outside, the preserved visage of the old chemist’s is equal parts confusing and charming for the Gen X parents, who tend to feel uncomfortable with quirkiness, and birthday girl, who is slightly hungover from last night’s bop. She has to do a double take before clocking the Arbequina on the window. Understated, laid-back, she’s not like other tapas places.
Through the curtained porch and the bar sweeps the length of the room and, though the tables are low-lit, the bright lights from the open kitchen prevent any awkward boudoir vibes. We are seated at one of the dark-wood tables adjacent to the bar. The designers have dispensed with the usual kitsch Spanish decor, and the tableware is all small white plates, terracotta platters, carafes of water, and low tumblers. It’s modern, European, relaxed – the kind of restaurant where you can pretend Brexit never happened. Cue fangirling over other diners; a young couple seated at the bar bond with the chefs over their shared Spanish heritage. There is none of the typical self-consciousness that often comes when ordering with one’s family; the staff are patient, relaxed, and capable.
We order from the menu: a bottle of Miranius, a perfect white wine from Penedes that goes down perhaps too easily…( Disclaimer: I know nothing about wine except that I prefer a smooth white and I’d drink “Oriel’s” stuff from the bottle – I’m open to constructive criticism). Bread, harissa, aioli – fluffy and crusty, with air pockets to die for, that we smother in the whipped garlic mayo and piquant harissa. What Arbequina describes as chorizo is thankfully closer to a merguez sausage than the tough dry-cured meat you may be used to, and instead of making your jaw ache it is served warm and melts in the mouth.
Sardines, gremolata, are fresh, zingy, and feel very sophisticated next to the Brit abroad’s favourite: patatas bravas. But they too are amazing; graced with more of that frankly delicious aioli and a fruity romesco, the patatas are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and possess that sweet earthiness you only get from deep-frying real potatoes. Onion tortilla is a cultural awakening from the stodgy frisbees that supermarkets peddle as authentic – instead you’re wooed by caramelised onions and layers of soft potato.
The sweet, delicate flavour of the perfectly charred aubergine with molasses is punctuated by feta and pomegranate seeds, and proves a hit with the vegetable-phobic younger sibling. Surprisingly, the real star of chicken a la plancha proves to be the Navarrico butter beans, and the promised salsa verde is more of a pleasant dressing than the punchy Mexican icon.
Slightly wine-drunk, birthday girl inspects the hallmark of any good restaurant: the loo. So many evenings can be ruined by a mid-meal trip to an unloved, over-used bathroom – enough said. Thankfully, Arbequina doesn’t disappoint and the clean, cool room provides a moment of clarity. After a quick motivational speech to oneself about not letting on how pitifully low your tolerance is, she returns for the best course.
The desserts are something to behold: silky honey panna cotta with plump sherry-soaked raisins arrives with a ginormous, crisp torta de aceite. The biscuit’s fennel seeds and olive oil balance out the sweetness of the cream with their grown-up savoury notes. The raspberry pastéis de nata fall apart on your fork as the just-set custard oozes out of the flakey pastry and the sharp bursts of fruitiness prevent the filling from being cloying. Santiago tart (Arbequina opts for the pastry-base-less version) is a light and moist almond affair with hints of orange, ubiquitously Mediterranean. Delicious, but not groundbreaking.
The bill is in no way student-friendly, but the parents promise that we don’t need to take out a second mortgage. As far as celebration meals go, Arbequina certainly delivers on value for money given the quality of its gastronomic offering, the faultless ambience, and the wonderful service. Perhaps the hallmark of a quality mid-price restaurant: their menu’s core features remain constant, but they have an ever-changing selection of more seasonal dishes.