Loud. Lively. Luscious.
These are the words that came to mind during my first visit to the Alhambra Café and Tapas Bar. Boasting water views from its location opposite the Manly Wharf, the place was buzzing on a Saturday evening. Patrons filled the warm and earthy tones of the Moroccan-themed interiors decorated with wall rugs and floor mosaics while larger tables of chatty diners spilled onto the footpath.
The Award Winning Café was this year’s chosen location for what recently became a tradition. A group of good friends, some dating back to school days, get together before Christmas and swap highlights of the current year.
The menu includes traditional dishes from the south of Spain with a Moorish influence as well as a selection of Tapas. For a large group such as ours, we opted for one of the Banquets. Reasonably priced at either $44 or $49, each menu offered a good range of dishes for us to sample and enjoy. The majority ruled and chose the less expensive menu simply for the reason that the other offered one dessert, a Coconut Semolina Citrus Cake, which had little appeal to us. We decided that we would order our individual choice of dessert.
Baskets of Spanish Bread were the first item to be served. Pieces of lightly toasted bread were flavoured with oregano, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil. Just what was needed to accompany the beers and wines that were toasted around the long table.
Next came the Moorish Style Olives. These green olives were pitted and marinated in olive oil, harissa, herbs and preserved lemons. The heat from the harissa was well-balanced against the slight tang of preserved lemons.
Garlic Mushrooms were brought to the table in an earthenware dish. Served warm, the button mushrooms were cooked in herbed butter and garlic.
The next entrée was presented in a geometric pattern. A bowl of Bissara Dip was placed in the centre of a large plate surrounded by fanned triangles of flat bread. The dip is made with a purée of broad beans or fava beans dressed in olive oil and cumin, with a hint of garlic, sprinkled with paprika, with a pitted black olive in the middle. On first impression, it resembled the more famous hommos dip, but it had a milder taste and slightly coarser texture, a delicious entrée that deserved an encore.
The Chorizo Sausage arrived next. Slices of grilled Spanish sausage spiced with paprika were served with a pimento salsa in the middle. While the dish looked appetising, I found the taste to be too mild compared to other Chorizo sausages I’ve eaten in the past.
Five dishes into the banquet and someone from the table made a good point. None of the waiting staff named the dishes as they served them. As busy as the restaurant was, it would have taken the guess work out of those less familiar with Moroccan/Spanish cuisine.
Next came the B’Stilla Pastry Rolls. The crispy fried chicken and almond were presented over a sauce with hints of saffron, cinnamon and butter, garnished with what looked like strips of fried onion.
The Moroccan Carrot Salad was the least popular dish of the night. Chunks of carrots were glazed in a paprika and lemon dressing, a healthy vegetarian alternative, perhaps a little too ordinary for some tastes.
With the entrées behind us, the small eating plates were cleared and replaced with larger dining plates, making room for the more serious main courses to be served.
Chicken and Preserved Lemon Tajine was the first to arrive served in a conical tagine that was removed by the waitresses. Marinated chicken pieces were cooked with confits of preserved lemons, saffron, tomatoes and presented with green onions and potatoes. I found the chicken to be a little dry particularly when it was swimming in the saffron-coloured liquid.
Next came the penultimate course, the Lamb and Date Tajine. Tender lamb pieces were cooked in honey, ginger, cinnamon, dates and orange. These were served with a sweet onion jam and topped with prunes, almonds and a boiled egg. The lamb was moist and tender, flaking under a fork and bursting with flavour. This was undoubtedly my favourite dish.
The last course was a Vegetarian Couscous, piled into a neat mound and topped with carrot, zucchini, chickpeas, caramelised onion and sultanas. The couscous was fluffy and tender and formed a tasty accompaniment to the lamb and chicken tajines.
Flamenco dancers made their presence felt with loud hand claps and resonant feet stomps adding to the already booming brouhaha of diners. They performed with gusto and invited guests to join them on the dance floor. The representative from our table kindly declined.
By the time everyone ordered a coffee, dessert was the furthest thing from people’s minds. Smaller groups were already in place, engaged in conversations, doing what they had come to do, catch up on recent events and wish one another the best for the festive season.
I would like to return to Alhambra Café and Tapas Bar, sit a table for two outside, try different Tapas, wash them down with a lot of sangria and watch the sun set over the Manly Wharf.
Alhambra Café and Tapas Bar
54 West Esplanade
Manly NSW 2095
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