With the Spanish Arch just minutes away, it makes sense to continue the Iberian trail, and so in the middle of the Galway International Arts Festival, we rocked up to Cava Bodega. No fools us, we nabbed a table for two a few weeks before, as we had previously learnt to our cost that this little tapas place is almost always booked out at weekends.
With a smallish upstairs and a more expansive downstairs, depending on where you’re seated is perfect for either watching the world go by (a window table upstairs) or being thrown into the eye of the storm, so to speak, of downstairs – where there be chefs frantically, and not in a bad way, preparing, slicing, dicing and delivering the food. I’m not saying we drew the short straw, but down the narrow stairs we stepped, and were shown to our table, which had a good view of the room and the kitchen.
While the kitchen was something out of a scene from a reality-based show focusing on what happens when - before your very eyes - ridiculously talented chefs start chopping up fresh food for an immense range of tapas, the room was something else altogether. As we perused a series of superb paintings, by Ruth Cadden, depicting pigs dressed in articles of clothing (you wouldn’t want to be a sensitive vegetarian, would you?), our attention was drawn to the general atmosphere that such a compact space generates.
Firstly, the noise levels were up to 90. This is fine if, like us, you want to revel in the festive fuss and bother that Galway delivers any weekend, let alone during an arts festival. Such a decibel rate is not, however, ideal for those who wish to delicately discuss the intricacies of where their relationship might be going.
Secondly, this being a tapas gaff, the menu is not only extensive (and, frankly, too physically cumbersome for the size of the table) but also ever so slightly confusing. Although navigation is easy (it’s divided into meat, fish, vegetables, nibbles and dessert sections), you’re still left wondering what to choose. And how many? A sympathetic server quickly came to our assistance – choose two for each person, she advised, and if we’re still hungry after that, factor in another two to share. This is extremely fair and honest - perhaps, even, to the financial detriment of the restaurant - but it’s something that other establishments might care to take note of.
With the thrum and thrust of Cuban/Spanish music about our ears, the hubbub of conversation around us, and the visual display of food preparation from the open kitchen in front of us, we set about selecting what we hope are not obvious tapas choices: free range duck, plum and px sherry (so called after Pedro Ximénez-created intensely sweet dessert wines); baby fennel, organic kale and hazelnuts; salted cod cakes and lemon aioli; and from the Specials Board, a salad of grilled apricots, goats cheese, spinach, hazelnuts, and lomo Iberico (cured pig tenderloin). From the 100 per cent Spanish wine list, we each choose a glass – for myself, red (Langa, Garnacha/Syrah, Calatayud, 2012), and for the chauffeur, white (Terramaior, Albariño, Rías Baixas, 2012).
The wine is, by turns, full-blooded and chilled, and perfectly complements the range of food that has difficulty squeezing itself onto the table. Hands up, your Honour, but I make a mistake of ordering the salted cod cakes, which are not (to this reviewer’s palette, at least) lightly drizzled with salt but injected with it. For dessert, we share a chocolate mousse, vanilla ice cream, and candied hazelnuts. It is, we agree – as we look once more at the porcine art - delivered with equal parts panache and humility: a champagne glass on a scrubbed wooden serving dish, with a ball of ice-cream flanked by a cherry and a blackberry. With a strawberry on top.
And this is what we really like about Cava Bodega – its blend of contained garish style and all-pervasive subtlety, and a display of firm but fair authority that’s tempered with a sense that everyone, from servers to chefs to owners, knows exactly what they’re doing.
Cava Bodega, 1 Middle Street Mews, Middle Street, Galway, website here 091-539884
THE TAB: Dinner for two, with a carafe of wine, came to €62.50, tip extra.
HOW TO: Open seven days. Mon-Wed, 5pm-10pm; Thurs, 5pm-10.30pm; Fri/Sat, 12 noon-11pm; Sun, 12noon-9.30pm.
(This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner, August 16th, 2014.)