[This venue is now closed]
We love that Continental lifestyle – a Southern European restaurant, near the water, filled with animated diners, tapas and good wine presented by a convivial host and a shoal of enthusiastic waiting staff. Yes, this is La Mancha …in Putney.
No, dear reader, we are not talking about Putney sur Mer somewhere between Le Lavandou and Toulon and overlooking the Mediterranean. (That town is fictitious; it’s just the writer exercising some poetic whimsy.) This is Putney in South West London, and La Mancha truly is just the sort of restaurant that we assume doesn’t exist in Britain.
We return from trips to Spain, France and Italy and we wax lyrical about the restaurants we visited and the meals we ate. “Can’t find places like that at home”, “They do it so well in Spain”, ” Can’t wait to go back”, “Here is a picture of me and the shellfish”. Go to La Mancha and you will find that truly authentic ambiance for which you have hitherto searched in vain. Yes, the owner, Salvatore, is just what you would hope he would be: charming in true Latin fashion. The staff are more attentive than any you will find on the banks of the Med, and the food is every bit as good as you remembered but in bigger portions; and you will be near the water – the Thames!
La Mancha has a full menu but it specialises in tapas. These make an ideal dinner. They were a traditional Spanish snack and consisted of a little round of bread with a topping that in days of yore would be balanced on your glass to keep the dust out of your drink. I wonder if that isn’t just a colourful anecdote as it’s unlikely that anyone would want to eat the tapa that would evidently be covered with the aforementioned dust that had been prevented from falling into the aforementioned glass.
La Mancha offers dozens of tapas that are sized to cover a bucket more readily than a glass of sherry. They are famed here for their generously-sized portions and that, along with the quality of food, keeps folks returning. It’s obvious they have regulars: diners arrive and shake hands with staff and seem familiar with the extensive menu. That’s always a good sign and particularly in Putney where there is plenty of competition. La Mancha is always buzzing.
Buzzing – that’s what’s lacking in other restaurants these days. It’s the sound that we notice and are drawn towards in Southern European restaurants, people enjoying not only the conversation and fun but the food. La Mancha provides a selection of small(ish) plates to appeal to every taste. One can order just a couple of dishes each and share with the table. Four or five dishes will likely be enough for two people so tapas here make a delicious meal that won’t break the bank. That’s important in these days of tightening belts – although you will doubtless be letting out that belt about halfway through a meal at La Mancha.
There are some traditional tapas here, those you would have tasted in Spain. Pimientos de Padron – sweet-hot peppers from Galicia in Northern Spain, sautéed in olive oil – are addictive. They are mostly mild but it’s culinary Russian roulette: there is often one with a bit more heat. Order these to nibble along with a glass of wine or beer while you have a look through the rest of the bill of fare.
Tabla Castellana – Serrano ham, chorizo Iberico, salsichon (a salami-type sausage) and Manchego cheese – is a classic platter of cured meat and the iconic Spanish cheese. Boquerones en Vinagre – fillets of anchovies marinated in olive oil, garlic and vinegar – are a typical dish that will make your mouth water. Have some plain bread with these. Other tapas include Tortilla Espanola – celebrated Spanish omelette with potatoes and onions; Patatas Bravas – potatoes with a hot tomato sauce – should be ubiquitous in every tapas bar; Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon – deep-fried breadcrumbed croquettes of chicken and ham – are comforting: kids would love the mild flavour and creamy texture.
Yes, plenty of expected dishes and the menu is no worse for their inclusion. They are part of what we want and expect from such a restaurant. These are the plates that have made tapas popular but there is much more to La Mancha than that. Lots of new dishes to try. Berejenas Fritas Con Miel y Romesco Sauce – crispy aubergines with honey and Romesco sauce – are exceptional. They are thin and delicate slices of aubergine and, even though the portion is sized for sharing, I could beat off fellow diners with a serving fork and keep these for myself. They can order their own. This is a must-try tapa.
Mejillones A La Marinera – steamed mussels with tomato, garlic and wine sauce – is another dish that will have you reaching for the bread. The shellfish are tender and add a fresh taste of the ocean to the sauce. It gives you a chance to play with your food, lick fingers and dunk bread.
Pinchito de Ternera – grilled skewered fillet steak, peppers and onions with a honey-mustard sauce – is surely a signature dish. The steak was chunky and cooked to pink-centred succulence. Still on its wooden skewer and smothered in sweet fried vegetables, sauce on the side, this was outstanding.
The dessert menu here is small and perfectly formed: we shared Tarta de Santiago – a traditional Santiago de Compostela almond cake. This, just like all other dishes, was a substantial serving. A wedge of rich almond-flavoured cake with a caramel and amaretto sauce. So simple but so correct, nothing fussy or over-garnished. This cake is just the best almond cake you could wish for.
Paella Valenciana – fish, shellfish, chicken, pork and rice is on my list to try on the occasion of my next visit. There will indeed be one: it’s seldom that I have enjoyed an evening quite so much. La Mancha ticked all the boxes for a great outing at a restaurant of any culinary persuasion. The prices here are unbeatable so it’s no surprise that it’s such a popular spot for both lunch and dinner. It’s been going for a couple of decades and stands to be around for another twenty years. Delicious food and at prices that will surprise you.
La Mancha Tapas Bar and Restaurant
32 Putney High Street
London SW15 1SQ
[This venue is now closed]
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018