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Raise a glass to tasty tapas at La Rioja

PUBLISHED: 16:09 16 December 2009 | UPDATED: 09:17 12 August 2010

PERFECT  PARTY PLACE: La Rioja.

PERFECT PARTY PLACE: La Rioja.

Set just off the roundabout from West Wickham High Street, La Rioja has established itself as a popular tapas restaurant with the locals. It used to be the slightly rundown White Hart pub. Now it s been revamped into an Iberian eatery specialising in Spa

PERFECT  PARTY PLACE: La Rioja.

Set just off the roundabout from West Wickham High Street, La Rioja has established itself as a popular tapas restaurant with the locals. It used to be the slightly rundown White Hart pub. Now it's been revamped into an Iberian eatery specialising in Spain's traditional food tapas.

According to some food historians, tapas was started by King Alfonso the 10th century (also known as 'The Wise One'). After being taken ill, he was advised by medics to eat smaller portions of food, particularly with wine. On his recovery he decreed that all inns throughout the land should serve small bites of food with drink, as this was beneficial to people's health.

It meant people weren't drinking on an empty stomachs and also ensured the working men would not eat large meals at lunchtime and therefore want a Siesta.

The Spanish tradition is to have a drink and a single dish of tapas in one bar and then move on to the next and repeat. Tapas tours are available in many of parts of Spain - they sound good fun!

Tapas actually started as a wedge of ham or cheese put on top of a glass of wine to stop the flies getting into the wine (Tapas comes from 'Tabla' or 'Tapa' meaning cover).

Over time the Spanish have obviously expanded their range of food choices and there is definitely more to Spanish food than tapas.

I first visited La Rioja Tapas Bar in the summer when we ate outside in the impressive landscaped garden area. Although the service was a bit slow on that occasion, we found the food tasty and in very generous portions.

On my recent visit there I noted that there were many more staff, and, apart from one hiccup when they forgot about us for 10 minutes after seating us, service has improved. Although not typically Spanish (mostly Italian) the waiting staff are pleasant.

The decorative Spanish lighting and colourful paint scheme of orange and terracotta all add to the traditional feel of the restaurant and the lively music makes it a very festive place to have a your office party.

On warm summer nights the tables outside are highly sought after and on this winters evening the dining area inside was packed.

There is a steady stream of locals and many had booked their Christmas party there that evening providing a convivial atmosphere to the place.

We ordered a bottle of their mid price Rioja. I believe a quality Rioja certainly kicks off well with the big flavoured Tapas dishes.

It's not a huge menu and, disappointingly, one of our tapas choices - meatballs (always much loved) had sold out. We supplemented this by going for other favourites, such as the Potato Bravas, crispy potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce, and the Sardines which were nice and crisp on the outside and meaty inside.

We also ordered the prawns with garlic and chilli, but this dish had a bit too much oil in it for me, as did the special of the day which was the cod in white wine.

The best choice for me was the tender calves liver cooked in a delicious white wine sauce with a bit of creamy mash potato on the side.

Apart from the lack of meatballs and the over oiliness of some of the dishes, we found our food authentic and satisfying at fairly reasonable prices. Also the way they paced out our choices meant everything was hot and fresh tasting.

La Rioja is definitely worth a visit and I think it's a perfect place to have a small or large party.

l If you'd like Victoria to visit and review your restaurant contact her at:

victoria.norval@btinternet.com

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