Tapas restaurants aren't something you see in villages around Britain. An Indian or a Chinese, fairly often; fish and chips, almost certainly. If you're lucky, you might even find a decent gastropub. But tapas? No way, José.
This is odd. The fact that so many Indian and Chinese restaurants prosper in smaller communities suggests that their less-expensive dining offer - which tapas can match - is perfectly pitched. More importantly, the runaway success of James Horler's chain La Tasca in the casual dining market proves that Brits love their Spanish food.
One chef who has exposed the anomaly, however, is Simon Shaw. The former head chef of Harvey Nichols's Fifth Floor restaurant in London returned to his native Yorkshire last year to set up El Gato Negro. With business partner Chris Williams, he leased a site from Enterprise Inns in Ripponden, a reasonably affluent, semi-rural village, and set about offering two menus. One was à la carte, modern European; the other, his personal passion, Spanish tapas.
After nine months, Shaw realised that 70% of sales were coming from the tapas menu. The more sophisticated à la carte offering, he thinks, with tablecloths and two sets of wine glasses, was scaring people off. What the village environment really wanted was something more laid-back. "We were looking at the type of person who comes in twice a week rather than once a month," he says.
So he decided to throw the restaurant's weight entirely behind the tapas. The menu is now divided into bar snacks, hams and salamis, cheese, bread, then meat, fish and vegetable tapas. Food ranges from roasted corn kernels (£1.50) through to acorn-fed Iberico ham from Barcelona (£9.50), with the majority of dishes costing less than a fiver. He also offers an early-evening deal of six tapas and a bottle of wine for £30.
To help the relaxed vibe along, Shaw has printed menus which double as ordering slips, with boxes next to each dish in which diners write how many of that dish they want. "It adds a bit of fun and participation," he says.
His restaurant background, however, means the approach to food is entirely serious. The Iberico ham, for instance, comes directly from a small producer in Barcelona, while the majority of the rest of the food comes from specialist supplier Brindisa. As well as more familiar tapas such as tortilla (£2.75), patatas bravas with aïoli (£2.85) or crispy fried squid (£4), Shaw also pushes his guests' boundaries with specialities such as Cantabrian anchovy fillets on sourdough with parsley, caper and shallot salad (£4.50).
"The anchovies are an acquired taste," Shaw says, "but someone might order them on a table, then, out of the three or four other people with them, someone is bound to be pleasantly surprised."
More substantial dishes include baby pork ribs (£3.75) which Shaw marinates in molasses, tomato juice, Lea & Perrins, Pedro Ximinez sherry and chicken stock. They are then braised slowly for three hours in an inch or so of the marinade, which reduces down to a thick, syrupy coating for the meat.
Another favourite is the piquillo peppers with salt cod (£3.50). Shaw marinades the salt cod for 36 hours with garlic and a spicy salt mix from Welsh salt company Halen Mon. He then poaches the fish in milk, crushes boiled new potatoes with a fork, and flakes in the cod. He adds flat leaf parsley and parsley oil, then tops it with piquillo peppers.
Ideas for the food come not only from visits to Spain; Shaw also name-checks his favourite restaurant in London, Fino. "Fino gave me the inspiration to do what I'm doing today," he says. "The care they show towards the food there is just great."
One dish featured is the morcilla (black pudding) from the Burgos region of Spain served with a fried duck egg (£5.50) - a dish that appears regularly on Fino's menu.
Talking point Ripponden is certainly affluent enough to support the 50 covers the restaurant can serve, and at weekends the kitchen has been cooking for as many as 70 each day. Shaw is also in discussion about opening a terrace at the back on the floor below, which could seat another 80-odd customers. "It has tremendous views and would create an amazing talking point," he says.
Shaw says he and Williams would like to expand even further, not least because a recent disappointing visit to La Tasca persuaded him that what he has to offer would beat that particular competition.
"We paid £50 for two people there and I don't think that's good value," he says. "If that's what they've built their success on, we could definitely roll this out."
Villages of Britain, take note.
- Caperberries, £1.80
- Manchego with bitter sweet green figs, £5.50
- Mini Catalan chorizo with spring onion and cherry tomatoes, £4.50
- Ham and parsley croquetas, £2.85
- Pinchos murunos, £4.85
- Tiger prawns with rosemary, chilli and garlic, £6
- Mussel vinaigrette, £4
- Warm chickpea, broad bean and baby spinach salad, £2.85
El Gato Negro, 1 Oldham Road, Ripponden, Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, HX6 4DN
Tel: 01422 823070