I've always been fond of La Vina, that reliable Manchester veteran at the King Street end of Deansgate. I've spent many happy lunchtimes there ordering more and more rounds of tapas in a bid to soak up their excellent white Rioja, and even chose it as a first date venue around this time last year, not least because I was relying on their gin-and-tonics-the-size-of-your-head to allay any last-minute nerves. In what used to be a fairly straight shoot-out between La Vina and Evuna, my money was invariably on the former.
Things have changed though in the last couple of years, and Manchester now has a whole raft of very good tapas restaurants, mainly clustered around the Deansgate area and supplemented by the excellent San Juan in Chorlton and newcomer La Cantina in Didsbury and Heaton Moor. And to their credit, La Vina seem to have raised their game accordingly. The new menu is a brave one, moving away from a comfortable, mid-price approach and instead foregrounding more typically Spanish offerings that had my San Sebastián-loving dinner companion raving in approval. And so far, the approach seems to be working, with the restaurant full at 6.30 on a wet Wednesday last week.
The evening does not, in truth, get off to a particularly distinguished start. They seem a little understaffed at first, meaning that the gin and tonics we order take 15 minutes to arrive, they have run out of Jamón ibérico, and the Pan Tumaca (tomato bread) is woefully under-toasted and seems to be lacking any seasoning. Things take a turn for the better with the arrival of the gin and tonics (which are exemplary even if the glasses do seem to have shrunk a little since the heady goldfish bowl days - a Gin Mare with thyme and a fat Gordal olive, and a Brockman's with strawberry and grapefruit zest) and our excellent server Bruno, who whisks away the offending tomato bread and replaces it with a perfectly-toasted, perfectly-seasoned version (you may play spot the difference above, if you wish). We also enjoy a dish of Gordal olives (there was one more than you see here, suggesting I should start being more selective with my choice of plus-ones), some very good Boquerones, confidently and simply presented with olive oil and smoked sea salt, and some moreish Croquetas de Pollo - three fat balls stuffed with chicken and cheese, deep-fried and served with aioli for added goodness. Alongside this we have a bottle of that infamous white Rioja which, at £21 a bottle, is far too drinkable for its (or my) own good.
Next up, the fish dishes - for me, the highlight of the night. The Pulpo is bravely, unmistakably, octopussy - one fat be-suckered tentacle lying brazenly across a bed of piquillo purée and flavoured with garlic, chilli and lemon. Bearing in mind that I once witnessed a girl in Iberica refuse to eat the octopus dish until her boyfriend had cut off all the suckers for her, this seems likely to startle a few diners - this is the best dish of the night though. A close second is the Galician-style fish - red mullet fried with garlic, paprika and sherry vinegar on a bed of potatoes and samphire and topped with crispy fried onions. I had this dish here a couple of weeks ago, and am well on my way to becoming addicted to it - the flavours are bold and the textures a lovely combination of fatty crispness and soft, flaky fish.
For our meat course, we share the Secreto from the Iberico pork section of the menu. My dinner date has talked of little else since the start of the meal, and thankfully it delivers - the marbling of fat keeps it beautifully tender as well as imparting a wonderful flavour, and it is cooked nicely pink as we request. Alongside this we have the Patatas Trufa, another stand-out dish of triple-cooked potatoes with Spanish white truffle oil, rosemary and manchego. The waiter says these are like Marmite, and a real love-it-or-hate-it dish; sadly, we both love Marmite, and do not share these crispy little delights in a particularly dignified manner. I am too full for dessert but am (thankfully) persuaded into a portion of Churros. These are as good as you might expect, served scalding-hot from the fryer, dusted with cinnamon and sugar and accompanied with a warm chocolate dipping sauce that I 100% do not, repeat NOT, drink straight from the cup when no-one is looking.
We had an excellent night at La Vina, which really seems to have stepped up a gear with the new menu. Yes, to my eye it seems that prices have gone up a little, but so has the quality, and they still do a range of excellent deals such as three selected dishes and a drink from the Menu del Dia for an astonishing £9.99 (Monday to Friday until 6pm), and Steak and Seafood nights on a Monday, offering a main, a side and a drink for £15. Every Wednesday there is live music from resident musician Fisko Tuvera between 7 and 9pm; we didn't know about this when we booked, but it added to the already-buzzy atmosphere and went some way to concealing the noise made when one slurps chocolate sauce straight from the dish. We couldn't really have felt more like we were on holiday somewhere warm and seductive by the time we left - so here's a shot of a moody, sexy, rainy Manchester on my way to get the tram just to remind us how lucky we are to have it all here.
- La Vina Manchester is at 105-107 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2BQ. We were invited in to review the new menu and given an allowance towards the cost of our meal, but we enjoyed it so much we lingered over drinks and spent far more.