Gambas Tapas Bar
Unit 12, Cargo 2, Museum Street, Bristol
It all starts with a crisp, prettily perched atop a glass of chilled Fino sherry. But this is no run-of- the-mill Golden Wonder, rather a tortita de camarones, a primary school’s worth of minuscule prawns, all bound together like crustacean brittle in the thinnest, most delicate and translucent of chickpea batters.
Dozens of tiny, coal-black eyes look up imploringly, gazing out from a blizzard of parsley. Two sweet, saline-flecked bites and it’s gone, leaving behind just a gasp of ocean-scented breeze. Simple, but spectacular. And an entirely fitting introduction to a restaurant named after the Spanish word for prawn.
Gambas sits on Bristol’s Wapping Wharf, no more than a pickled carrot’s hurl from Root, a younger sister, I suppose, to the much loved Bravas. It used to be Spuntino, a London restaurant I like very much. But things never quite worked out. Just as they never quite did with another import, Meat Liquor. On the site of which Gambas owners Kieran and Imogen Waite are about to open a new mezcal bar.
A lot of the art of good tapas lies in the buying. And the team at Gambas Tapas Bar know where to look. Above: Seafood Salpicon, with mussels, octopus and prawns
Swings and roundabouts and all that, but Bristol looks after its own. Local quality rules. Anyway, Gambas, like Bravas, is a tapas bar. Albeit one in a shipping container. The space may be small, but the talent in the kitchen immense.
OK, so a lot of the art of good tapas lies in the buying. And this lot know where to look. We eat pert, muscular boquerones, with just the right amount of piscine chew. And a piece of fried bread, topped with a languid curl of their cured cousin, rich, dark and handsome.
Yellow fin tartare, with a good whack of ginger and chilli, is not classically Iberian, but the fish is gleamingly fresh, the seasoning spot on. A sesame seed crisp adds welcome crunch. We fly back into the heart of Andalusia with immaculately fried chicken chicharrones, coriander seed adding its own Moorish promise.
Tortilla is old-school, packed with thick slices of firm potato, like the ones I used to eat on picnics in Spain. As much as I adore the Barrafina oozing beauty, this takes me back to my youth. And makes me very happy.
It’s served with a hearty splodge of aioli. There are creamed leeks, subtle and subdued, sat under a gratin crust, and wallowing in a gloriously rich Mahón cheese sauce. Charred pincho moruno, the pork chewy and succulent and heavy on the cumin. And fideuà, paella made with pasta, with a bracing acidity and studded with mussels, tiny cuttlefish and prawns.
So far, so brilliant. Head chef Mark Chapman sure can cook. But then come the prawns. Well, more prawns. First, adolescent versions of the babies we started with, expertly fried and lavished with salt. You devour the whole thing, that crunch of the head bringing particular joy.
Then, a little older and the size of my index finger, crusted in more salt. There’s sweetness here, but they’re a touch overcooked, making the texture a little too flabby. No such problems when the same beast is drenched in garlic and chilli (pil-pil style), and served bubbling hot, the pot wiped clean with a hunk of bread.
Carabineros shrimp, vast and postbox-red, have one cheek carefully cut out. Garlic butter is poured in, and a spoon inserted, so you can dig out every last scrap of alium-scented brain and gloop. It’s sensational, that wonderful mix of the fresh and ever so slightly fetid. And you know I’m a sucker for the fetid.
For pudding, crema catalana, milky and eggy and subtly scented with citrus. Even on this grim January afternoon, the cooking shines brighter than an August Andalusian sun. ‘You know,’ says Mark, as we linger over a glass of good Spanish brandy, ‘it’s odd, but Bristol has never really had a great seafood restaurant on the waterfront.’ But now there’s the sensational Gambas. And now they damned well do.
About £25 per head