I’m sure I can’t be the only one who feels it’s such a breath of fresh air to eat at a restaurant that serves amazing foreign cuisine and isn’t a chain such as the likes of Las Iguanas. It needs to be said that some chain restaurants are better than others and I love eating Southern American food at Las Iguanas even if I am completely unable to comment on the authenticity of their food- to me it’s tasty, cheap and cheerful so there is no need to analyse it further. However I have always felt that Las Iguanas lacks that hominess and personal touch in its uniformity, or the experience of someone who grew up in that particular corner of the world. Furthermore, even though the business brains behind Las Iguanas (or any chain) would argue that it is familiarity that punters crave and the uniformity and consistency is the restaurant’s main appeal, I find it mildly disconcerting that a restaurant looks the same whether you step in in Sheffield, Reading or Liverpool. So my pleasure at discovering authentic, independent places such as Valparaiso is even more intense. That’s not Valparaiso in Chile – but that is where the owner/chef at Valparaiso hails from. Which is precisely what I was after.We went to Valparaiso randomly on a Tuesday night to celebrate that a rather unpleasant thing didn’t happen. This was a big deal to me, however on a Tuesday night I wasn’t after an opulent feast – I wanted something small but delicious, preferably to be accompanied by a bottle of wine. Well, let’s just say that did not go exactly as planned and we left the restaurant in a slight food coma. I must say I was slightly dubious at the outset, Hardman Street is not my favourite corner of the world, especially after dark when it gets swarmed with masses of students on their way to/from various boozy adventures. Valparaiso’s warm, welcoming interior dispelled my worries instantly and I felt that smug satisfaction I always feel at discovering something truly good.
Perhaps the curse of the Tuesday (which we decided is the worst day of the week), only two other tables were occupied. This, I thought, only added to the intimate atmosphere of the fairly low key eatery. We were waited on by the wife of the owner, which made for interesting conversations between ordering and… ordering again and being served. I did not know that Valparaiso is an established institution – while others come and go it is still going strong after 21 years thanks undoubtedly to the devotion and personal involvement of its owners. The food, including fish, is locally sourced and prepared following the principles of slow cooking. Valparaiso are clearly doing something right.
To the meat lover such as myself Valparaiso will be a true treat. Longanizas (Chilean chorizo) is made on the premises, need I say more? Perusing the menu I was plunged into my usual indecision. The menu is built around South American staples such as beans, corn, tomatoes, poultry and pork, with the addition of fish and seafood. That said, even though vegetarian and even vegan dishes can be found on the menu, the choice there is much slimmer. There is also the early doors menu, which applies all evening on Tuesdays and is a particularly good value deal. I felt slightly overwhelmed by the amount of items on the menu, I do whenever there is more than 5 dishes to choose from. In the end I excitedly settled for a rabbit and leek stew and a starter garlicky mushrooms with smoked paprika and white wine, while Kenn went for Valparaiso chorizo followed by Pastel de choclo, which can only be described as Chilean take on shepherd’s pie. I was disappointed to find later that they had run out of rabbit and opted for a fish and seafood broth, my second choice.
Following a rather long wait for wine our starters arrived. And were they delicious, the creamy mushrooms served with a garlic baguette and the chorizo juicy and tender. However it was the lime juice and oil salad dressing that made it for me. I was annoyed with myself for feeling stuffed after starters, but was determined to find space for my main. Of course I was then faced with a gigantic bowl of fish broth, with a side of rice! I have eaten seafood on a number of occasions in Spain, Italy and Greece, yet I have never been face with such an enormous portion and choice – I recall crab, scallops, mussels, octopus and chunks of white fish cooked in a white wine and parsley broth which was absolutely to die for, very strong- a tell tale sign of hours and hours of slow simmer. I shared my plate with Kenn and in the end, following a comedic struggle with crab crackers I managed to demolish the lot. Kenn’s main was an interesting combination of minced beef, sliced chicken and boiled egg, spices and sultanas topped with mashed sweetcorn. I loved the way all the different flavours, sweet and savoury unfolded in my mouth, however there is no way anything could possibly top my impression of the fish broth.
We must have looked stuffed as there was only a feeble attempt at offering us the dessert menu – and so we were. We chatted a bit more with the owners wife, then asked for the bill (very reasonable at around £40 for 2 mains, starters and a bottle of wine) and slowly headed home. For a first encounter with Valparaiso I was impressed, only slight downside was the waiting, I don’t usually mind waiting for food but why do I have to wait for wine! I believe this flaw can be explained away by the fact that the chef’s wife was the only waiting staff on duty that night and her proneness to interesting conversation. There is a pleasant atmosphere, good house wine, delicious and reasonably priced food and, above all, that all-important personal touch. I will be back.