Food: Mostly superb – look out for the pork cheek and Albóndigas meatballs in particular.
Experience: Tapas can’t help but be fun. Location quiet, service friendly and attentive.
Value: Save your tapas benders for graduation, but the set menu is great value.
From the Civil War until about twenty years ago, Oxford Castle was one of the most intimidating prisons in the land. Behind mediaeval walls, local convicts would live out their last days here before facing the gibbet. There’d have been a lot of last meals served up here, as part of the tradition which, in more recent times, has allowed every Texan death row inmate, from serial killers to parking offenders, to glut themselves on one last bucket of fried chicken. There are two rules: the food must be sourced nearby, and it can’t cost the earth.
If I ever find myself on Death Row in a recommissioned HM Prison Oxford, La Tasca would be a strong candidate for my last meal. Nestled in the back of the new Oxford Castle development, it’s a stone’s throw from the ancient castle itself, and there’s a hint of a Don Quixote inn about the place as we step out of the rain into a warm, wood-panelled space illuminated by wagon-wheel hanging lamps.
First things first: a glass of sangria apiece. Fruity and sweet, it’s dangerously drinkable, of which more later. We start with the Tabla Española, a wooden board bearing cured meats, mixed olives, bread and cheese. Soft salami, nutty Manchego cheese, sweet olive oil: a tasteful sideshow to the evening’s main attraction, choosing from the panoply of tapas dishes on the menu. A full pitcher of sangria also makes it onto our order.
After a brief interlude, in which my male companion discovered that, despite including the word ‘señor’, ‘señoras’ denotes the ladies’ loos, the tapas begins to arrive. I’m immediately taken by the Catalunyan mini beef burgers. It’s a credit to La Tasca that a dish that isn’t a Spanish staple should be better than most of George Street’s gourmet burgers. A crispy, slightly sweet bun encases beef of strong, smoky flavour – it’s been slow-cooked through with a medley of spices, and tastes fantastic.
The pork cheeks are also slow-cooked, and it means they’re impossibly tender, and they seem more concentrated in their flavour than conventional cuts. Elsewhere, we sample the Croquetas de Pollo, hand-breaded chicken breast balls – overpoweringly creamy, but complemented by the Extremadura, an additional chicken dish with a citric dash of lemon which provided refreshment amid a rich selection of meats.
There was more on the table. The standouts here were the Albóndigas meatballs, or rather their sauce; tomato, garlic and basil combined with spicy freshness to outdo the pork and beef meatballs. The paella was sticky and colourful and its thick, spicy chorizo slices deserved more of a hearing than the little tapas dish would give it.
n a fit of sangria-assisted hubris, we decided that the final item to tick off was churros for two. Overstuffed with tapas and, another pitcher deep, overfull of sangria, we weren’t ready for hot doughnut twists, soft marshmallows and sticky chocolate sauce. But it won’t be long until we return, especially while the set menu offers tapas for £6.99 a head. This La Tasca meal won’t be my last.