Fashions come and go and this is as true in the restaurant world as it is on the catwalk. Over the past few years we have witnessed the ‘burger revolution’, the growth in popularity of cocktails and a move towards less formal dining. Moreover, they say that travel broadens the mind but it has also broadened our palates and as foreign travel becomes more commonplace we want to visit restaurants at home that remind us of the food that we have eaten on our trips abroad. In particular, tapas menus, based around small shared dishes, have really caught on and their popularity looks set to continue.
Tapas originated in bars in Andalucia in the south of Spain where sherry drinkers would be given a piece of bread to place over their glasses in order to keep the flies out. In fact, the word tapas comes from the Spanish verb ‘tapar’ meaning to cover. Over time, cured meats, seafood and roasted vegetables were also placed on top of the bread to tempt patrons as bars competed for customers. As the popularity of tapas grew throughout Spain, different areas added their own regional influences and a new food genre was born. We now think of tapas as consisting of a wide range of small dishes or snacks encompassing a variety of tastes and flavours in one meal.
During the day, Knox, a small, independent-run restaurant in Sligo Town, operates a breakfast and lunch menu but in the evenings (Thursday to Saturday; 6-10pm) it also serves its Knox@Night tapas menu. Located right in the heart of Sligo on O’Connell Street, Knox has quickly built up a loyal customer base since first opening in May 2015. It seems that the town has developed a taste for tapas and booking is advisable as many ‘walk-ins’ were turned away from this popular spot during my recent visit, as there were no available tables.
Our first impressions of the restaurant were good and both Paula – my dining companion for the evening – and I agreed that with its dark decor, wooden tables and ambient lighting, Knox has successfully replicated the feel of authentic Spanish tapas bars. An outside dining-area provides extra space and would be an ideal place, weather conditions permitting, to dine al fresco.
The menu contains some interesting dishes and is divided into sections covering ‘nibbles while you wait’, sharing boards and dishes ‘from the ground’, ‘from the sea’ and ‘from the field’. These are keenly priced ranging from €3 for nibbles to €14 for the most expensive dishes which include lamb, hake and sirloin steak. Unsure about which dishes to order we decided to prioritise our wine choice plumping for a gutsy Spanish Santa Maria Tempranillo Rioja, (€7 per glass/ €27 per bottle) from the concise but carefully chosen wine-list. As we sipped on glasses of this full-flavoured wine we tucked into a platter of Artisan Breads & Dips (€4) which included a white bread, one flavoured with tomatoes and a wonderful version made with ham.
Our waiter advised us to order a couple of dishes each to start but reassured us that we could order more at any time during our meal. He also informed us that the food would not arrive all at once but that each dish would be served as it was cooked. First to arrive was that old tapas stalwart Patatas Bravas (€5) which contained a generous amount of well-seasoned baby potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce along with a garlic aioli. Too often this classic tapas dish can be a bit oily and the potatoes can lack texture but this version was very good and we wolfed down the lot.
The potatoes were quickly followed by Squid, Lemon, Aioli (€8) which was truly excellent. I am always wary of ordering squid as it is so easy to overcook, becoming rubbery in the process and akin to chewing on large elastic bands. This dish was fantastic and quite possibly one of the best squid dishes that I have ever eaten. I loved the piquant, spicy coating and the soft, yielding texture of the perfectly cooked squid.
Our next dish of Pickled Watermelon, Mint, Poppyseed (€6) provided cooling relief after the spiciness of the patatas bravas and squid as did the Cos, Chicken Skin, Blue Cheese Dressing (€5) which contained nice chunks of creamy blue cheese with crisp leaves of lettuce. A crumb of crispy chicken skin added textural contrast.
Pan-Fried Scallops, Ham Hock Terrine, Crispy Chicken Skin, Apple Gel (€13) was something a little different from the scallop dishes available in so many restaurants these days. Here three plump scallops were served on a discs of ham hock terrine and topped with a crispy chicken skin crumb. I loved the flavour combinations and the way the saltiness of the crumb counterbalanced the sweetness of both the scallops and ham. A slick of tangy, slightly acidic apple gel completed the dish.
With ‘you only live once attitudes’ we decided to order another couple of dishes. Slow Roast Pork Belly, Black Pudding, Apple, Carrot & Anise (€11) was a huge hit with both of us. Well-rendered and meltingly soft pork belly still managed to have a crispy skin and was deeply satisfying to eat, but it was the accompanying deep-fried black pudding bon-bons that had made us groan with delight. With their crunchy bread-crumb coating and soft but full-flavoured meaty centres, they were heavenly.
The Seared Duck Breast, Vanilla & Rhubarb Purée, House Granola, Kale (€13) was another meaty offering which we devoured despite feeling quite full. The portions in Knox are generous and in many ways our waiter’s advice was spot on; four and five dishes between two people would probably suffice. We ordered far more but this was purely in the interests of research (ahem), as I was keen to sample a number of the dishes.
We finished with something sweet and as the evening was warm and dry asked whether we could conclude our meal at one of the outside tables. Our request was granted without any bother and we spent an enjoyable hour chatting together outside as we watched passers-by and ate our desserts. My Churros, Chocolate Sauce, Vanilla Bean Ice-Cream, Crushed Praline (€7) was, like the rest of our meal, well made and with my sweet tooth, I thought it was fabulous. Paula’s Salted Caramel Liquor Affogato (€8) was also excellent and a sophisticated way to finish the meal.
I loved Knox. The menu has been well thought out and contains dishes that are full of bold flavours that immediately conjured up memories of past holidays to Spain. I also loved the relaxed atmosphere in the restaurant and the friendly service delivered by staff who really seem to enjoy working there. The rise of tapas-style dining goes hand-in-hand with the trend towards social eating. I believe that sharing food connects people and brings us together and that tapas encourage conversation because diners are less focused on eating an entire meal. Modern life can be hectic but restaurants like Knox which provide top-notch food and also encourage conviviality should be celebrated.
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.