Before this recent visit I hadn’t been to the Sol Y Sombra in Broughty Ferry for a very long time and I’m now embarrassed to admit I don’t really know why that was the case.
Apart from the coronavirus pandemic, there was no good reason not to have visited this classic more regularly and now, having reacquainted myself with its enduring charms, I’d be happy to go there once a week if I could be guaranteed as good a time as four of us had at a recent Saturday lunch.
I do have some history with this place as it became a bit of a home from home for me when I first moved back to Tayside from London. I quickly grew to love the restaurant, the bar and, especially, the hospitality of the owners – led by the shy and retiring Phil Stewart, who became a good pal.
Sol Y Sombra
Many a night I’ve sat carousing in this place and it’s amazing how fast you can believe you’re operating on later Spanish mealtimes when you have another full bottle of Casa Albali by your side.
Because of this I have to declare here that I couldn’t conceal from Phil that I was going to review his restaurant because any idea of going there anonymously would only have worked if he wasn’t there – and he’s nearly always there.
This is a guy who defines the art of hospitality to the degree that I’d say he’s easily the best restauranteur in Dundee. He’s also probably the best maître d’, the best sommelier, the best waiter and the best stand-up comedian to have run a classic Dundee restaurant – and for that we must all be thankful.
Phil Stewart is everywhere in this space and he defines it so much his presence is apparent in every detail. He genuinely cares about his customers and the pride he takes in offering them the best experience is palpable. In fact, so linked is he with the Sol Y Sombra that I and many others simply know it as Phil’s place or just the Tapas Bar, and that is how I shall now refer to it here.
What is it we’re looking for in a restaurant, apart from great food and service? What makes us leave some places with a big smile on our face and skulk out of others wishing we’d cooked pasta puttanesca at home?
I’d say we’re often looking for a touch of magic – that indefinable spark that can turn a good experience into a great one. The best restaurants achieve this seemingly without even trying.
The Tapas Bar is just such a place.
So much of a restaurant experience comes from the ambiance, and the atmosphere here is so relaxed and conducive to kicking back that you forget what time of day it is.
This is a good thing, especially if you’re drinking at lunch time, which we were on this occasion.
The company helped greatly because I was joined by Gillian Lord, features editor of The Courier, Joy Melville, Gillian’s sister in/out-law, and Mary-Jane Duncan, fellow columnist, café owner and all-round good egg.
There was never any concern that the conversation would dry up.
I arrived ready for a rollicking good time because I already know Gillian and Mary-Jane, and Joy’s reputation as bon viveur and wit preceded her – not least because she is such a formidably entertaining presence on social media.
I have to say I haven’t laughed as much at a lunch in a very long time. The Tapas Bar is an environment which encourages that. I defy anyone not to have a great time here.
It’s actually a bit of a Dundee institution now, having been open since 2010, and it was definitely one of the first of a new batch of restaurants to try to shake up the city’s culinary scene.
The aim here is to recreate the atmosphere of a typical Spanish family meal and in this they succeed totally.
Sharing is encouraged – and necessary – because there’s a lot of dishes and sharing is really the best way to appreciate them.
Lunch is £19.50 per person and dinner is £27.50 (not including desserts) and this is remarkably good value for the quality and quantity of food that will be delivered to your table.
Don’t let this scare you though because the portions here are generous yet manageable and the variety of dishes means you will constantly be experiencing varying tastes and textures within your meal.
This is a great place for a crowd although it’s somewhere that would work for any number of people.
I have been here before with just one person, a first date which wasn’t entirely successful because Phil made me laugh so much that I forgot to pay attention to my new potential life partner. It’s safe to say there was no sangria in the park for afters on that day, although I did nip back to Phil’s for a drink when the date was over.
Today, though, all is merriment and the very drinkable house white (£20) is poured and the very Dundee banter is flowing.
Phil to Joy, as he approached our table: “Are you Joy Melville?”
Joy to Phil, never skipping a beat: “Depends wha’s asking!!”
Let the bacchanalia commence.
Aperitivo were mixed nuts and marinated olives and Gillian already commented that the olives were the best she’d ever had in Dundee. Marinated in garlic, rosemary, parsley, thyme, red chillies, oregano, bay leaf, sweet pimento and olive oil, how could they fail to taste anything other than superlative?
Cold tapas comprised a punchy alioli, queso palancares con membrillo (a goats milk cheese from Murcia, matured in red wine and served with quince paste), boquerones en vinagre (marinated anchovies with Marcona almonds), ensalata de verduras (mixed salad), chorizo Iberico de Bellota and a Moroccan-style fruit couscous served with caramelised onions.
They were all delicious, especially the anchovies and the chorizo which is from the Iberian free-range pig, fed on a diet of acorns, the meat then cured for six months.
By now I was in tears of laughter at the conversation around the table, enhanced by the fact that Phil decided to give me a shoulder massage as I laughed in a jocular (and futile) attempt to get a 10/10 review here. I had to break it to him that the reviews peaked at five, at which point the free massage abruptly ended and he returned to serving our food.
Hot tapas were; patatas bravas, kebabs with chicken, chorizo and morilla de Burgos (the best type of Spanish black pudding, made with rice), gambas al Pil Pil (the prawns anointed in garlic, white wine, parsley, pimento and chilli), pan-fried Coley with smoked paprika sauce, crispy broccoli with Serrano ham and an assertive salsa verde, and Galician calamari and king prawn stew.
Vegetarian Joy had her own selection of dishes including halloumi kebabs, an aubergine, courgette, pepper and tomato stew, a Spanish omelette, some fried Padron peppers and a vegetable fideua (a dish similar to paella but made with Valencian pasta instead of Calasparra rice).
We finished with a couple of desserts and I especially enjoyed my orange sorbet served in an orange because it brought a wonderful meal to a refreshingly mouth-puckering close.
This is a lot of joy for £19.50 and actually joy is what defined this meal and this restaurant.
Sharing food like this reminded me not just of the pleasure of eating together, but of the sheer fun of abandonment to laughter and good times. This, of course, is at the heart of many of the world’s top cuisines and is very obvious in everything about Spanish food.
It’s why so many of us love to experience new cultures and new cuisines, and why this often makes us challenge our own ideas and way of life. It’s why we travel.
In Spain, for example, lunch is anytime from 2pm and dinner never before 8pm and often much, much later. Many offices and shops still close between 2pm and 5pm, reflecting the fact that many Spanish have their main meal at lunchtime. Fish is a preferred protein, and the variety of fresh fish offered even in supermarkets is much better than here.
But really, the main difference in Spanish eating culture is the fact that most dishes are shared and it is this aspect – as well as some stellar ingredients and honest, gutsy cooking – that is celebrated in the Sol Y Sombra.
Just as a restaurant like London’s River Café was hugely influenced by recipes from the domestic kitchen, so the Sol Y Sombra aims to give an authentic Spanish experience to its customers.
Gillian mentioned to me afterwards that she has eaten there a lot over the years and that it’s amazingly consistent. She commented how the food was simple good cooking using great ingredients, and that she loved the whole theatre of going there. I totally agree.
Joy, who has a house in Spain, commented that Phil’s knowledge of the food he served was absolutely on point and that the service was warm and friendly. When she asked for some booze on her cheesecake, Phil simply got a bottle of Chambord and drizzled it over – a delightful touch.
Mary-Jane simply said how lovely it was and how Phil’s unobtrusive descriptions and stories just felt like an additional family member stepping seamlessly in and out of the conversation. This is all true.
This place defines bonhomie and the art of hospitality. The food is great, and you will leave here with a big smile on your face, as we all did.
As far as going back here, manana can’t come soon enough for me…
Address: Sol Y Sombra Tapas Bar, 27 Gray Street, Broughty Ferry DD5 2BH
T: 01382 776941
Price: Lunch £19.50; dinner £27.50
- Food: 5/5
- Service: 5/5
- Surroundings: 5/5