If there’s one thing my family does really well, it’s food. I’ve told you plenty of times about my big brothers and their chef-life abilities that make my paltry efforts look like a kindergarten kid’s. When my nephews were growing up, culinary adventures with my biggest brother were set against the backdrop of their home, with afternoons of family fun spent in their kitchen whipping up feasts that we could enjoy while the boys played with whatever the latest must-have toy was.
Now they’re all grown-up, our love of food takes our get-togethers out and about more. We’ve done festivals, street food, restaurants, and our latest trip took us to Bristol for a mooch round Wapping Wharf. If you haven’t been, you probably should.
A row of shipping containers down by the harbourside, it’s one of those places that allows food people to pursue their dreams. Kind of a stepping stone from street food to restaurant, where I’d imagine the rents are cheaper than bricks and mortar, but the permanent set-up allows traders to explore their own restaurant concept and show people what they can do.
When we visited (on a slightly grey day) we didn’t have a specific plan of where to eat but to see where took our fancy. From fish and chips to Greek food, tapas, Mexican and more, there’s also a fair few producers, including cheese, an artisan butcher and wild beer. Plenty to keep you busy for a few hours.
While my nephews were won over by fish and chips (which, by the way, looked very good), we found ourselves lured to Gambas by the promise of homemade paella and a shed-load of tapas. The sun may not have been shining but it seemed the perfect place to re-live summer trips and talk about far-flung places we could go to take the food-filled family adventures further afield (I’m look at you San Sebastian…)
Gambas is the brainchild of a husband and wife team who, from what I understand, already have a few hits in Bristol, including Bravas in the city and Cargo Cantina just a few doors down at Wapping Wharf. Apparently it’s inspired by the central market in Valencia and the aim is to focus on fresh fish and seafood with a touch of the Catalan, all washed down with a Spanish-inspired aperitivo.
My sis-in-law and I start with just that, feeling the need to quench our thirst as we peruse the menu. Despite the grey day, we sit on the terrace because, well, we’re British and having tapas so it’s the thing to do.
As well as the standard menu offering what, at first glance, appears to be verging on an exhaustive list of dishes, a specials menu appears offering even more. There are ‘plancha’ dishes, fried dishes, traditional tapas from the counter, plus a whole load of more imaginative offerings to try.
We order what seems like everything – one of those experiences that requires the use of the ‘notes’ app on your phone. As it should in places like this, the food comes out when it’s ready, guaranteeing a steady stream of sustenance plus the inevitable near-constant exclamations of ‘wow’, ‘mm’ and ‘oh no, do you think we ordered too much?’.
We start with the paella after being informed that it’s nearly ready so we should get in quick. It’s not disappointing. Rich in colour and flavour, soft and yielding yet with a bit of bite and even the crunchy bits that get stuck to the pan thrown in for good measure, plus a shitload of seafood. A good start.
The patatas bravas, I’m sad to say, weren’t quite up to the same standard. Maybe I was spoiled at El Borracho de Oro in Birmingham when it restored my faith in the dish but these just didn’t quite hit the spot. For me, patatas bravas should be a bit more special than chunks of potato with some sauce over the top and these just weren’t.
Next up were boquerones – fresh anchovies served traditionally with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Simple, tasty and fresh. Alongside those, ‘plaice frito’ from the specials menu. Another simple one served with garlic, parsley and my old friend alioli. More proof that sometimes less is more.
Padron peppers were their own emerald-green love letter to simplicity, slightly charred and adorned with crunchy jewels of rock salt to enhance their sweetness. But it was the octopus that inspired ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from around the table. Perched on top of a bed of potatoes sprinkled with smoky pimenton, the grilled tentacles somehow looked the most attractive of any marine species limb I’ve eaten before.
Perfectly cooked, it was yielding without being squishy, al dente without being rubbery, and tasted fresh, slightly smoky and had a touch of sweetness from its slight charring. An all-round delicious dish.
Another winner were aubergine fries slathered in sticky, treacly molasses. Nothing I’ve seen before on a menu, impressive on the plate and an exciting combination of flavours. Sweet, savoury, sticky, soft, salty. Any more descriptors beginning with s? My only criticism was that perhaps slightly less of the sweet molasses would have allowed the aubergine – delightful in its own way – to sing a bit more.
Chicharrones or crispy fried chicken was ordered because we saw somebody’s else’s and it looked great. Ours, too, looked great, though the taste didn’t quite live up to the hype. The texture was just right, a proper crispy skin with tender chicken inside, but or me it was slightly lacking in flavour. Perhaps even more seasoning might have helped. Who knows.
While some of our choices may have seemed a bit pedestrian, or erring on the side of tried and tested classics and fond favourites, if you know me and my family you’ll know we never balk at trying something a bit different. That’s where the lamb sweetbreads with mushrooms and buti farra came in.
Buti farra or botifarra is a typical Catalan dish – basically a sausage made of raw pork and spices. It’s rich, meaty, almost offal-y. And in this case, combined with even richer, slightly sweet, full-on-no-holds-barred lamb sweetbreads, with a punch of mushrooms bringing just a bit more umami to an already insane plate of food. Delicious at the first mouthful, yummy at the second, and you think you just might die by the third. In all honesty, as much as I’m a fan of authenticity and trying new things, I could probably have made do with the sweetbreads and got further than the third mouthful. But hey, you live and learn.
And finally – one of mine and Mr M’s faves – aged Galician beef. The most expensive dish on the menu but irresistible after our adventures over the summer. It was served how I’d hoped – seared on the outside, still mooing on the inside, with another generous helping of rock salt sprinkled over.
It didn’t disappoint – the strong meaty taste of the beef reminded me of our two experiences of this style of beef in Andorra and in Spain and made me yearn to go back and do it all again. If you are a meat fan and you haven’t yet tried this then you quite simply must. So there.
We washed everything down with a fair few drinks, from the fruity ‘Pomegranate and Orange Gingria’ to my ‘Catalan Spritz’ but even I wasn’t brave enough to take on a Negroni mid-afternoon on a Saturday.
It may have been grey. It may have been slightly cold. And we may have been on a terrace built into a stack of shipping containers. But for us, we were transported to Spain, dining on tapas, sipping drinks, and doing exactly what works best with food – spending time with the people you love the most.
The choice at Gambas is impressive, the food is tasty and fresh and balanced between simplicity and experimentation, and the service slick. It’s one of those versatile places that you could go with friends, family, loved ones and more. Not every restaurant can bring the feeling of sunshine to a grey day but Gambas does. That’s no mean feat.
We paid in full for our meals at Gambas. They didn’t know I was a blogger.
Pin for later: