Eating in Seville
From tapas bars to high end dining and everything in between
Years ago, I told a friend that the only history you needed to learn about a place you could learn from its food. It was the sort of bullish statement I’d make, where I’d have to make up reasoning on the spot. While it may not be true you can learn a place’s history from its food alone, it is the nevertheless, the way I like to discover somewhere new.
The dream would be to have a local friend who could guide you place to place to get the very best. “The salt cod from here, but the calamari from over here.” Without such a friend, we were left with the troublesome job of navigating review websites, reading guidebooks and trying to decipher which reviews we should pay attention to and which we shouldn’t.
Michelin is an odd one. In London, I find myself enjoying Bib Gourmands, while happy to venture for a 1-star if wanting something a bit special. When I scan the list each year, I usually agree with the choices. And yet, whenever I’ve been abroad, the guidebook seems to fall apart.
On the first evening, we scanned the Michelin site and picked one of the city’s four Gourmands right near the cathedral. While the “rustic-creative” raised an eyebrow, the “centred on high-quality ingredients” felt comforting. The sort of place in London you could imagine where the chefs would hail from a River Cafe-meets-St John heritage.
We arrived early for Seville and late for us (8.30) and the place had two people eating alone. The restaurant was silent. There was more noise coming from the street outside than the kitchen.
Unfortunately, the food did little to save the atmosphere. I had mean portions of chorizo inside a unseasoned bean casserole, followed by overdone Iberian pork strips. While LA had ‘calamari’ which arrived inside a black bao bun. That was followed by roast cabbage served alone despite the waiter saying it came with additional vegetables.
It was a disappointing first night. Especially given that Michelin gave it one of the four Bib Gourmands in the city. It has a 4.3 rating on Google, 4.5 on Facebook and 4 on TripAdvisor.
The real low point, however, came two nights later. That day we’d visited the city’s wonderful Mercado de Triana, a huge food market where fresh vegetables and other produce lined dozens of stalls. Inspired, we opted for a restaurant with a ‘vegetarian/vegan’ bent that still served meat and fish. I hoped for a restaurant that would treat that market produce with simple and tending care.
What we were presented with left a lot to be desired. The mixed tapas came out very quickly, with a lukewarm selection that LA thought had been heated from frozen. Still, I quite liked the beef curry samosas even if they were cold and rather strange.
For mains, I opted for the “sea bass fillet,” while LA chose the vegan ravioli of the day. The waiter placed my plate down in front of me and I immediately said “I’m sorry, mine was the sea bass fillet.” The reason being was that in front of me was a large, dark brown sort of pasty with shaved almonds over the top of it. “Yes that’s right” the waitress replied, walking away. Across the table, LA had a moss-green raviolo the size of a small SpaceX aircraft in front of her. We both laughed. Both dishes were lukewarm with each filling tasting roughly the same: under-seasoned and anonymous. It could have been a meat substitute, but sea bass fillet it was not.
With these two restaurant experiences under our belts, it would have been easy to swear off Seville as a beautiful city but not one for its food.
Fortunately elsewhere, we saw things much improved.
For Tuesday lunch we ate at Vineria San Telmo, where we had the first jamón ibérico de bellota of the trip. Tiptop Iberico ham stands up for me as alongside lobster, perfectly cooked steak, and a buttery, reheated roast chicken sandwich, as one of the best foods in the entire world. Given the city’s location in Iberia, the jamon remained a go-to best bet throughout. The bar’s hummus too was delicious, and the mushroom croquette a highlight amongst a few cheesy ones.
The following day we visited El Rinconcillo. Here we received the best service in any tapas bar in Seville. We drank fantastic wines and sherries, and nibbled our way through a handful of dishes. Iberico jamon, again brilliant. Manchego omelette was well executed. A seafood salad came with delicious prawns and zingy fresh leaves, but a pickled squid that divided the table. The only downside dish was the frozen, rubbery calamari. But this was a small blight on an otherwise great tapas experience.
Our final lunch at Bodeguita Romero was another encouraging selection. Jamon: par for the course. Manchego, a tad dry but nice and nutty. Salt cod fritters: delicious – I could have eaten ten plates of these. Even the potatoes which came swimming in chivy, vinegary oil were pretty good. Tapas in the city is good if a bit samey place-to-place.
Michelin-started Abantal came in as a recommendation from a friend. With no ala carte, only 10+ dish tasting menus, we were a little apprehensive but went in anyway for our second night dinner.
The whole experience was excellent. The dishes were incredibly well timed even if perhaps there were two or three too many. While there was a great focus on seafood (Red king prawn with pickled vegetable and turnip, Aubergine, sea bass, roasted onion gell and cucumber, and Hake, snow peas, pork dewlap and squid ink all highlights), it was the spiced potato, oxtail, truffled egg yolk and mushrooms that won star of the show for me.
The tasting menu itself was €70 a head, which for ten courses is expensive but good value. LA described it as ‘the best of that type of dining’ she’d had. For me, it was the best tasting menu experience I’d had aside from Smoke & Salt‘s.
Here we left out choices in the hands of our waiter who recommended us a combination of their classics and some fresh fish options. He recommended a 2015 Noradaneve to drink with it, which was a knockout white: buttery vanilla, slightly oaky, bright and elegant. There’s a British importer that has 30 bottles left, and I’d highly, highly recommend you knabbing one of them (even at 19 quid).
To start, we had sardines atop of tomato on toast. Here was the simplicity we’d been longing for this entire trip. Simple ingredients, simply prepared. The result was incredible and one I want to recreate this summer.
Tuna sashimi followed, with a umami miso sauce for dipping. The seasoning brought a slight warmth to the sashimi, which combined with the sauce was the best raw fish I’d ever eaten. Next up, fried whole baby squid with a black squid ink aioli which was rich, charcoaly, and salty delicious.
The main: a freshwater white fish, cut into chunks and thinly battered was good – although personally I would have chosen it without the batter. With knives and forks crossed, the waiter came over with a tip for us “eat the cheeks, they’re the best part.” A new one for us, and thank god we did, scrumptious little nuggets of flesh I had no idea existed. We had the ‘classic Sevillian dessert’ at the end: an orange sauce with sweet deep-fried bread and ice cream on top. What it is about sugary bread I’ll never know, but the chefs here treated this dish as well as it could.
In some hilarious abstraction of taste, Tradevo de Mer only has 4 stars on TripAdvisor and the lowly new Plate designation in Michelin. If you ever go to Seville, go here. It’s not only the best seafood you’ll eat in Seville, its amongst the best seafood you’ll eat anywhere.
I’m not sure whether our hit-and-miss food experiences say more about Seville or more about the broken system of ratings from crowdsourced sites like TripAdvisor through to accepted-standards setting of Michelin.
Perhaps its my millennial nature, but before arriving, I’d wished that the best food experience had been some old, dark, back alley tapas bar. ‘A rare treat and honest,’ I’d have had the delight in telling anyone who would listen. Instead, the best two restaurants were far from my – perhaps bastardised – notion of ‘authentic.’
When I visit a place, I always want the food that tells me its story and history. In Seville, its Iberico jamon is a reliable dish you should eat everywhere. But after that, the historic notions – at least in places we ate – were lacking.
I was shocked it took a more formal dining location to find fresh seafood, when the coast was an hour away. Likewise, for a city with a beautiful market of fresh vegetables, they seem missing from most tapas menus. Perhaps these contradictions shouldn’t have been so surprising. After all, this is a romantic city, yet one whose scent is the combination of oranges and manure from its many horses.
Seville is a beautiful city. Even in the comparative cold of February, it’s a delight to be in and the Maria Luisa Gardens are one of the most peaceful places you can visit. But if you were choosing somewhere purely for a food holiday, this would probably not be it. There are delights to be had. Stick to Iberico jamon, salt cod, manchego cheese and olives in the tapas bars. Then treat yourself to either Tradevo de Mer or Abantal for an evening meal. The wine, it should be noted, is fantastic everywhere and from about €2.30 a glass, who can complain about that?