There were a number of highlights to our dinner at Pata Negra. First, it was Pata Negra. Second, it was one of those rare occasions when my dining companion was actually my husband (it was our anniversary). Third, there was Anna, our waitress, who gave us quite possibly the best service we have ever received. More about her later. Finally, there was the food.
Pata Negra is a tapas bar. It is dark and moody, with black ceilings and floors and dimmed lights. Not a single plate, glass or serving platter matches. The chairs are all mis-matched yet the room is unified by the realisation that you have seen it somewhere before. In your nanna's house perhaps, or your aunty's house back in the 1970s. Glass decanters, vinyl chairs, orange glass, brass vases. It's eclecticism meets garage sale, but still it works.
The menu is divided into seven sections, each with about four options. It changes constantly, so chances are something we ate tonight might not be available next week. The food is seasonal, local and entirely at the whim of the chef. Prices range from $6.50 for spiced, smoked almonds to $38.50 for pata negra fabada (a bean stew), to over $50 for a suckling pig dish. Most seem to lie in the range of $18 to $22 with the exception of the 'land' [meat] section which is priced a little higher and the 'pastry' [dessert] and 'dairy' [cheese] sections which are priced a little lower. All food is designed to share.
The chef David Coomer, used to own Star Anise in Shenton Park, which had a brilliant degustation menu. Luckily for those who despise making choices, Pata Negra offer a 'vamos a darle de comer' or 'let us feed you' option for $82 per person. This menu, decided on the night by the chef offers two selections from each of the tapas, jamon embutidos, the sea, the earth, the land, and pastry sections. There is a bit of flexibility if there is a dish you must try, or if you have any allergies or dislikes, but part of the fun is not knowing what will be dished up.
We started with a serve each of smoked almonds and marinated olives. These were quickly followed by 'tomato bread', four char-grilled slices of chewy bread with a super fresh tomato salsa to spread on top. Chorizo 'a la sidra' followed together with a plate of jamon ham, so thinly sliced it was like pancetta. The chorizo was like no other we had ever tasted, and although it might have been better if the waitress had mentioned the hooves and snouts after we finished eating it, the flavour was mild rather than garlicky and fatty, the texture crumbly rather than chewy. It was delicious, especially when we matched it with the bread and salsa. I'm hoping that's what we were meant to do.
The next two dishes were from 'the sea'. We had requested the 'arroz negra', one of the signature dishes: paella rice with squid ink and cuttlefish. I'll be honest, it looked pretty awful, a lot of the dishes did, but they tasted extraordinary. The paella came with a lemon chunk to squeeze and some own-made aioli. It was like nothing we had tasted before, the crispy bits at the bottom of the pan worth fighting over. The fried spice king prawns were two decently sized specimens, coated in chick pea flour and spices, deep fried and served with a super perky tomato, pistachio and coriander sauce. If you are so inclined, you can eat the whole thing – we did – heads, eyes, legs, brains. The waitress was surprised, maybe we were supposed to leave the heads behind.
Next came two vegetable dishes, and by this stage we were beginning to feel quite full. If we were hoping the garden dishes were going to be easy on us, we were wrong. We were presented with a dish with little fried, green peppers. Innocuous looking, but devilish in their random heat. 'One in ten will blow your mind,' Anna told us. 'The rest vary between mild and hot.' We counted the peppers – there were twelve. My first one was tasty and certainly not hot. It had delicious crystals of salt that had me begging for more. My husband's first pepper left his mouth tingling, but nothing too devastating. Our seconds were mild and non-eventful. We began to get a little cocky. His fourth was enough to have him look around for the water. I began nibbling the end off, just to check the heat, before committing to the seed-filled end. The end score – one superhot that made us cry, three hot enough to burn and eight super-mild and tasty. Russian roulette for the tastebuds.
The silverbeet, kale, caramelised onions, baked egg and almond sauce was one of those dishes I never would have ordered off the menu, but was thrilled it was presented to us. Somehow all those flavours just worked together, it was a bit like breakfast.
We finished with a beautiful dish of suckling pig and baked figs. I would have liked the crackling to have more crackle but it was nicely presented and a balanced way to bridge the gap between savoury and sweet.
My husband had put in a request with Anna for the stewed blood plums, pistachio icecream and pavlova and she had worked her magic with the chef. It was superb but I wish I'd had the foresight to ask for something different as there was both cinnamon donuts and Portugese custard tarts on the menu. And I love donuts and custard tarts.
The Chef's Choice menu is an excellent and economical way to taste the best Pata Negra has to offer. The selection we were presented with would have been well over $200 if we ordered individually, yet at $82 per person, we saved at least $40. As Anna says, the chef ensures that people leave well fed and never hungry, but also never so much that they need to be rolled out.
The service was attentive and friendly, and we were never left waiting or wanting. We felt like we had made a friend (we even asked her name, because we are still searching for the girl's name in case Baby Number Three is a pink one). If you book for the early sitting, you need to be prepared to leave by 8pm for the next sitting, and by the time we left there was a small crowd waiting for tables. It's popular, and easy to see why.