Little Clarendon Street is perhaps the perfect location for a restaurant; not too far from the centre, just on the verge of Jericho, and equidistant from basically every college. However, what this means is that competition is tough, and so a small, unassuming tapas bar like Al-Andalus can easily be overlooked by hungry passers-by.
But stop by and take a seat, and you will find your eternal reward in this veritable Aladdin’s cave of Mediterranean titbits; exotic Agrabah meets sunny Seville in what, upon entry, resembles the inside of an earthenware tagine. Splashes of ochre and terracotta on the walls, the sunlight which floods in from the expansive front window, as well as traditionally ornate Moroccan fixtures all seem to actually warm the place and your spirits for as long as you’re there. The thought that on the other side of Al-Andalus’ door lies tepid Oxford, a city of tutes and essay deadlines, becomes less and less plausible as you pour another glass of their unbelievably refreshing homemade sangría and just pray that you never have to leave.
Attractive though the uplifting décor, smooth libations and charming staff are, both Danny and the Gourmand agree that the star of the show is the food, which, not five minutes after we ordered, started to arrive swiftly at our sundrenched table. The diversity and expertise put into a platter of dried pig slices is truly something to behold, with smoky chorizo and rich salchichón going perfectly with the warm bread and unspeakably fresh salsa (which Danny said ‘tasted like summer’); meanwhile, I couldn’t resist pairing the wonderfully intense and dry Serrano ham with one of the specials of the day: fried aubergine medallions drizzled with honey.
Sweet, salty, crispy and chewy, it was as if they’d encapsulated the very soul of aubergine in a light batter – perfect simplicity giving birth to a morsel so delicious that the mere thought of it renews my tears of joy.
Tapas as a format lends itself fantastically to intimacy; not just the intimacy between you and your dining partner (though if you don’t already love him/her, you certainly will by the end of the meal), but the intimacy between you and your food. There are none of the restrictions of single plate eating, but rather an encouragement to nibble, to taste, to mix one dish with another to your heart’s content. Gambas al ajillo, for example, arrived with some grandeur, a quartet of incredibly succulent king prawns still sizzling vigorously in a dish of olive oil lined with garlic, and – delicious as they were on their own – with a little bread dipped in the oil and a dash of salsa on the prawns, they became so transcendentally good that we had to order another round.
To suggest that Al-Andalus relies on innovation would not be doing them justice. What truly matters here is the expert cooking of high-quality ingredients as per the tradition of countless generations: albóndigas, small meatballs in a tomato sauce which date back to the days of Moorish Spain, momentarily transported me back to a childhood surrounded by my mama’s traditional Moroccan cooking, whilst skewers of lamb grilled with a touch of cumin and lemon were succulent and pink inside with all the lustrous marks of the charcoal on the outside.Possibly the most interesting dish to turn up was a duo of skewers on which were impaled chunks of sirloin beef and bacon-wrapped dates, whose caramel flavour cut through their salty, fatty, piggy sheaths to create an intriguing partner for the juicy steak.
What can I fault them on? Very, very, very little. A dish of chicken in a creamy piquillo sauce which the chef had sent was somewhat uninteresting, but such is the nature of chicken – that’s why I never order it in a restaurant and that’s why, if you’re not unspeakably dull, you never should either.
The dessert of homemade flan was not to Danny’s liking, but a perfectly serviceable rendition of the classic crème caramel nonetheless. Anyway, what are you still reading this for?! Go! GO! Take your loved ones and just GO!