Review: Casa Colombiana

Until fairly recently The Grand Arcade wasn’t much more than empty lots and curiosities; a shortcut between Vicar Lane and North Street if it was a bit drizzly; a place where you could smoke cigarettes indoors, having spent about £12 at Santiago’s Whiskey Wednesdays and feeling like the fourth Beastie Boy, circa 1988.  It had its attractions; beloved vegan restaurant Roots and Fruits, a vintage clothes shop that sold actual vintage clothes – rather than dirty Kappa sweatshirts and ill-fitting Wrangler jeans – but it was for the most part a very big, very beautiful, very under-utilised area of town.

Last year it received a bit of a spruce-up and a good portion of empty space began to fulfil its potential as Handpicked Hall – an indoor market where local independents traded on a monthly rotation.  Among the usual shabby chic wall-hangings reminding you to “Live, Laugh, Love” and soap that looks like macaroons there was some great food, and while Handpicked Hall ultimately came to an end, its legacy continues through the food which a lot of people first encountered there – Indie Ices, That Old Chestnut vegan bakery, and Casa Colombiana.
Just across the arcade from Handpicked Hall’s hollow remains, Colombiana has expanded from a humble coffee cart to a restaurant which they’ve decked out to look like the “South America” leg of Disney’s Small World After All ride.  The collage of terracotta paint, burlap coffee sacks and Papyrus typeface is a step up from cantina-style decor, but still casual enough that people at other tables are comfortable sharing notes on their meal if they notice you staring at their plates (Speaking from experience, there).  This atmosphere’s a product of not just the decor, but the owner who works the room like a restauranteur in a Scorcese film, indulging each table in enthusiastic, charming conversation.  The trade-off for getting this level of attention is that service isn’t lightning-fast – it took about fifteen minutes from getting in the door to having a (reassuringly strong) mojito in my hand, but the wait never feels like a chore.

For starters we had chorizo – plump little oval sausages, like bullies’ fingers in a Roald Dahl story – which are made in-house.  They’re warmly spiced, with a texture more similar black pudding than the overgrown pepperami version from supermarkets, present in around 90% of my home-cooking.  The plantain fritters would have worked for me as a dessert; thick ribbons of the stuff wrapped around chunks of Queso Fresco, skewered, and deep-fried; salty-sweet little mouthfuls tasting equally of halloumi, sweet potato and slightly underripe mango.

The Albondigas were great – well seasoned balls of coarse-ground beef, roughly the size of an angry toddler’s clenched fist, covered (not swimming) in a thick, picante tomato sauce.  They’re served with white rice and potato wedges – just in case starch is going out of fashion – but neither of them add anything to the dish, the rice just sits there, being rice, and the big daft potato wedges would benefit from a couple more minutes in the deep frier, to avoid comparison with oven chips.

That’s not to say they can’t get carbs right.  I ate the Llapingacho special – the eponymous focus of the dish was potato cakes, stuffed with cheese that was just the right side of stringy without turning into cartoon bubblegum.  The meal as a whole resembled a Food Pyramid poster hung upside down; flank steak cooked enough to make it tender, one of those fat little chorizos (I was thrilled to have one all to myself), fried egg, avocado, a moreish Aji salsa and a token salad – a hearty combination which captures Casa Colombiana’s ethos perfectly – casual, home-style comfort cooking done really well.

Two starters, two mains, a cocktails, Desperados and service came to around £50.  I wish I’d had longer so I could try the Ceviche and Arroz con Pollo, but I humbly admitted defeat – those strong mojitos put us in the mood to go a few doors down to Santiagos, and the food had given us plenty of reason to come back again.