Review: Iberica, Leeds

Iberica Leeds

You can understand why the group of City Lads getting politely turned away might have been confused – on the night we go to Iberica it’s halfway through something like its third week of soft-launch events.  A couple of soft-launches is to be expected, but several weeks’ worth is very unusual.  Restaurants have opened and gone out of business in less time than that.  It’s also a long time for a restaurant to be operating while not making any money (though, credit where it’s due, it looks like The Joint has been doing just that for a while now) but looking around the venue, you get the impression that Iberica aren’t short of a few quid.  This is no less evident than in the bathroom.

You’ve probably seen the bathroom by now – it’s  gorgeous.  Probably the finest bathroom in all the City.  It could have been imported directly from a Dornish palace – if Dorne existed outside the mind of George RR Martin – all patterned tiles, mirrored ceilings and rose gold.  There’s a 6ft wide stone sink in the middle that’s begging to be repurposed as a dolsot bowl for serving a world record-setting Bibimbap.  There’s mirrors on the ceiling, mirrors on the doors, mirrors on the walls, mirrors in front of other mirrors.  It’s a shrine to vanity itself.  It’s destined to be the place to get a bathroom-selfie for the foreseeable future.  People will flock here for that reason alone.  Whether the food is any good or not is irrelevant.  This has worked out favourably for Iberica, as the food we ate was, almost without exception, not good.

Iberica claims that it offers “the true taste of Spain” – if that was the case, I’d be campaigning for stricter border controls.

It starts off encouragingly, with mouth-puckering Negronis and buttery Manzanillo olives with their almost melon-like sweetness.  There’s a selection of cured meats which I won’t pretend to remember the names of without referring back to a menu, but the Serrano is particularly great, with rich, even marbling of fat running in parallel lines.  The old “melt in your mouth” cliche is an understatement – I was worried that this would fade away if I breathed too heavily on it.  There’s a 42 month-cured Iberico Jamon stands out as well, the flavour is so complex that it actually develops and changes with each chew, like Willy Wonka’s three course meal in a stick of chewing gum.

There’s a bodega style deli downstairs where you can admire the skill of the master carver while she shaves these particle-thin ribbons of meat off the legs, and eat artisan cheeses while you drink huge riojas and vermouths like you’ve never tasted before.  If that sounds like your idea of a fun time then you should absolutely give it a try, I wholeheartedly recommend it.  What I don’t recommend, though, is ordering anything from the kitchen.

We’re assured that the kitchen uses only the finest ingredients to make their tapas dishes – having tasted the charcuterie and cheeses and olives, I don’t doubt the integrity of their suppliers.  Even the finest ingredients don’t stand a chance though when they’re dredged in murky oils or flabby batters.  Three of our dishes are tempura’d, none of them are cooked at a hot enough temperature – the outside is saturated with oil, the inside is doughy.  Spring Onions slither free of their tempura-casing on initial bite.  What remains in your hand a cylinder of batter that probably resembles Guy Fieri’s arteries.  Cauliflower tempura is topped with a shaving of raw cauliflower – making it an ideal dish for those who enjoy picnicking in close proximity to sulphur mines – and fried Chorizo lollipops taste like the air at a festival on Sunday night; heavy with the smell of petty arson and melted deckchairs.

Croquettes have an almost ethereal lightness to them but taste peculiarly of nothing at all, and the Iberica Fish & Chips should politely get back in the sea.  Of the dishes that weren’t deep-fried, razor clams were the biggest disappointment; overcooked to the point where they could be used as a bungee cord, a contrast of texture comes from all of the sand that didn’t get washed out of the shells properly.  Swordfish Roll is helpfully described on the menu as “Swordfish in a roll”.  It’s actually a ball of minced swordfish, and it’s fine.  Kind of like a pork faggot, but not as flavoursome.

Beef Cheek Carpaccio is very rich, very fatty-tasting, almost like a short-rib.  The meat itself is great, ruined only by unnecessary dollops of truffled potato and acerbic, flaccid olive oil potato crisps.  My personal “true taste of Spain” involves eating Olive Oil-flavoured Lays crisps for breakfast while walking through Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.  Iberica ought to see if their produce importer can put a couple of multipacks in with their next shipment.

A characterless cheesecake comes with shards of parmesan protruding from the top, like a lactic stegosaurus.  If you’ve ever eaten a cheesecake in the changing room of a high school PE department then you’ll have some idea what the Gloria Cheesecake with parmesan tastes like.  If you haven’t, then don’t be tempted to let curiosity get the better of you.  They apparently ran out of inspiration for “Textures of chocolate” after just two: a kind of fondanty brownie one, and a kind of soft and crumbly one.  Efforts should have been focused on getting the flavours right before exploring the physical properties of the stuff.

After the meal we go to the bodega bar to eat a bit more charcuterie, and we get a very informative, very impassioned introduction to some good vermouths.  It’s the best part of the whole evening.  It’s also a reminder that they do use great quality produce, it’s just stifled in the kitchen with all of the deep-frying, over-truffling and sub-kebab-shop garlic aioli.  Iberica is a great place to eat and drink, it’s just not a very good restaurant.  Still though, that bathroom…

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