My heart sagged when I was invited to a new tapas joint in town by a friend. After all, how many patatas bravas can one woman eat with a smile? And how many renditions can there be in Oxford?
El Rincón boasts a bona fide Spanish chef Juan Clares and the food is absolutely delicious
Appearances didn’t help. Situated at the old 38 on South Parade in Summertown, outwardly you couldn’t tell it had been taken over, the old awning still in place (soon to be replaced) so I’d already walked past since it opened in March without realising it had morphed into El Rincón.
Even the menu didn’t dash away any preconceptions. The usual offerings were there, peppers, anchovies, bread, croquettes, prawns… what was so special about this place?
El Rincón is an absolute gem of a new oxford restaurant
Everything as it turned out. Within minutes of the food arriving I realised all my cliched expectations were utterly misplaced. Not only beautifully decorated and traditionally tiled inside, El Rincón boasts a bona fide Spanish chef Juan Clares and the food is absolutely delicious.
Take the ‘Guindilla peppers in tempura batter’ served simply with lemon wedges – they were so completely delightful that while my friend chatted away, I engulfed the entire portion single-handed. Light, crispy batter with the al dente bite inside and a hint of spice. I was in.
Meanwhile in proper tapas style, dishes kept arriving at the table as and when, wrenching me out of my Guindilla reverie, into further delightful Spanish realms.
Just look at the gambas (prawns) wrapped in aubergine with honey and harissa, as recommended by our lovely waiter.
I would never have ordered them ordinarily – it seemed an odd combination – but there they were, unashamedly resplendent, sprinkled in sea salt, and crying out to be lavished. Which we did, in awe, the prawns sweet, sticky, hot and loved.
Or the roasted leek with romesco sauce and pistachios? I mean how exciting can a leek be for God’s sake?
The star of the show as it turned out. Saved by El Rincon from vegetable insignificance and allowed to shine, it was soft, juicy, and the accompanying sauce was something else – awesome in the true sense of the word.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was tasting as I again devoured the lot. My poor friend probably left rather hungry but I was unable to resist or even feign politeness as I continued my Spanish tapas journey unabated.
The mushroom croquettes for example? No he didn’t get a look in, the El Rincón salad with Puy lentils, red onion, tomato, grated beetroot, black olive soil and a house dressing? The odd leaf. The calamari with black aioli? Nothing was as expected.
All my bad Anglicised habits dropped by the wayside as the meal progressed – concluding with the Roqueson cheese ice cream, which came topped with nuts and tasted divine – light, sweet and as novel as everything else.
We sat outside as we soaked up the last of the summer’s rays and revelled in the fact that Oxford had been gifted such an unexpected surprise without any of the usual pomp and circumstance.
I rang Rosaleen, who runs El Rincon with her partner the chef patron Juan afterwards. Both have Spanish heritage and decided to serve the tapas they enjoy at home in Spain.
“We were worried it wouldn’t be what people wanted or expected but chose to be true to ourselves and our heritage” she told me.
I’m so glad they did because El Rincon is an absolute gem of a new restaurant and one that Oxfordians are already relishing. The word may be out folks, but it’s for good reason.
El Rincon is at 38 South Parade, Summertown, Oxford OX2 7JN.