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Photo by Richard Owens
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Photo by Richard Owens
It struck me as I perused the online menu before heading to Tanta that I had little idea of what many of the dishes were, which naturally made the prospect of going all the more exciting. That, and the fact Tanta is the latest venture of Gastón Acurio, the wunderkind of modern Peruvian cooking.
In his native South America, Acurio’s restaurant empire covers everything from ceviche, to street food, to the new wave. Here in Barcelona, he’s squeezed a little bit of everything into a space described as a ‘Peruvian bistro’, though honestly, that’s not the word I’d use to describe it. There is a swanky bar at the entrance serving excellent Pisco Sours (€7 for a small, €11 for a large) that reaches back into a sleek dining room; all slate-grey wall panels, wine-coloured concrete floors and a lushly planted terrace. It’s trendy in that impersonal, minimalist kind of a way, and over-lit to the point that we had to direct one of the wall lamps away from us, which killed the mood somewhat. As for service, think sweet but slow with occasional rabbit-caught-in-headlights moments.
A case in point: we ordered a couple of croquettes de aji de gallina, based on the Peruvian favourite of chicken stewed with walnuts, parmesan, evaporated milk and the mild aji amarillo (yellow chillies) to snack on with our Pisco Sours while we browsed the menu. This caused great confusion—our menus and wine glasses were whipped away—and when the croquettes arrived crisply fried on the outside, but cold from the fridge in the middle, I suspected they’d been cooked in panic to get them out on time with the drinks. Clearly, cocktails and snacking are not the norm. Later when we’d retrieved our menus and tableware and moved on to the actual dinner, all the dishes arrived at once like a Chinese buffet. Teething problems perhaps, but Tanta is too expensive to be skimping on dining room logistics or logic.
Well, the great thing about Peruvian cooking is that it has a wanton disregard for food snobbery. So while there are plenty of foodie-pleasing obscure potato and tuber varieties, unheard of chilli peppers, and a profusion of fish and seafood, it also embraces condensed milk, Thousand Island dressing and mayonnaise with gusto. Indeed, squiggles of the stuff appear everywhere. Whether this is line chef gone mad with a squeezy bottle, or a quirk of Peruvian gastronomy it’s hard to say, but on the whole I liked the food. It was fun, different and made for sharing.
We nibbled on excellent tender potato bread rolls with a dish of sunshiny tomato and pineapple salsa and scanned the menu ordering anything that sounded strange and wonderful. First up, causa limeña - a stack of mashed yellow potatoes the colour of egg yolks topped with bonito belly, half a soft boiled egg, a dollop of mayo and a couple of leaves of fried parsley. It was a pretty little thing, yet had that comforting quality that makes you feel you’re being properly fed.
Ceviche criollo, by contrast, was light and bright, proffering firm, fresh chunks of corvina (a meaty white fish that folks in South America love) with a hefty chilli kick that was contrasted brilliantly by crunchy giant corn nibs. It knocked our socks off, but so it should at €23 a full portion. Tiradito nikkei – essentially sashimi with bold flavours piled on top—was fussier, comprised of thin slivers of tuna ‘lacquered’ in honey and passion fruit and finished with a flourish of Thousand Island dressing. For me this final addition made it too sweet, but underneath is was all good.
Watanes, were less successful. So far as I can tell, they are but fried wantons stuffed with pork and prawns, which at Tanta you dip in tamarind sauce. They were fine—probably good with a Pisco Sour now I come to think of it—but paled in comparison with the anticuchos (grilled skewers) of beef heart that were richly spiced, pinkly juicy and served in confident chunks rather than unsure slivers. Served on a mound of tender, braised white corn to sop up the juices and raw onions for zing, this is just the kind of honest cooking and bold flavours that make good food great.
Indeed where Tanta is good it’s very, very good; it just needs to find its feet.
Tanta, Córsega 235, tel. 93 667 4372,
Open daily 1.30pm-4pm, 8.30pm-midnight.
Approx €50 per head for a mid-sized Pisco Sour, several shared plates, and a bottle of wine