'It's a trap!'
- Admiral Ackbar, Return of the Jedi
Admiral Ackbar's infamous words of wisdom come to mind when I think of tapas. On paper its deceptively cheap, but all those small morsels can add up to a surprisingly large bill if you're not doing the math as you go and are looking for a decent feed. On more than one occasion I've thought, 'wow... I could have gone fine dining for these prices'. I don't mind paying top dollar for a meal and I'd happily pay for expensive tapas if I knew that was what I was getting myself into, however comparing the degree of technical skill on show at places like Co-op Dining or Restaurant Amusé to the more casual/conventional cooking on display at some mid-level tapas places I can't help but feel a little ripped off, especially when its deceptively listed as a 'cheap eat' on Urbanspoon since each plate is $9, but they don't tell you you need 10 to make it worth your while. So when I heard that Justin Bell of Jus Burgers fame had converted his old Snags and Sons location in Leederville into Pinchos - a tapas bar that was legitimately cheap - I had to see this for myself. We don't find ourselves in Leederville very often these days, so a detour on the way home from Joondalup proved an excellent excuse to pop in for a casual Sunday night dinner.
The general layout of the space is surprisingly much the same as it was in its Snags and Sons incarnation...
... with little touches to emphasise the change of theme such as superfluous decorative pans and garlic bulbs hanging by the window,...
... Spanish-themed posted lining the walls,...
...and the glass display at the counter showing off the pintxos for which the place is named.
Pinchos take a clever page out of the dim sum restaurant playbook, with their menu actually presented as an order form - simply write the number of how many of each dish you want, bring it to the counter and pay, and the dishes will be brought out to you. Its such a clever and simple way to prevent major miscommunications and stuff ups I'm surprised more places don't use this system.
After filling the sheet out, we didn't have to wait very long at all for our first item to arrive - Pan Árab, consisting of flatbread, saffron labne, olives, beetroot, pickles and grapes. This simple dish was probably one of our favourites, with the flatbread being super soft and having a wonderful elasticity so often lacking in those dry wraps you get at supermarkets. Taking a piece of bread and dipping it into the sourness of the labne and adding the sweetness of the beetroot or the grapes was a wonderful combination of sweet, salty and sour flavours in a single bite. Moreish is an overused word when it comes to tapas, but it seriously applied to this dish - it was addictively tasty, and we could have gone for a second round if were were greedy.
The Croquetas arrived soon after. We'd just had Japanese seafood croquettes a few days earlier at Jun so it was interesting to see the contrast. While the Japanese croquettes were a juicy ball of minced seafood, the croquetas were more similar to the gravy-filled Dutch style, being a combination of smoked ham and chicken in a molten hot creamy, cheesy sauce. The filling was as delicious as it sounds (ham, chicken, cheese... how can you go wrong?!?), and with its crispy crumbed coating and bed of spicy mayonnaise to up the creaminess factor this was probably our dish of the night.
Which is not to say the other dishes were not also very good. The Cordero Árabe was recommended to us by the waitress as one of the dish we just had to try. Consisting of slow braised lamb, beans, yoghurt, fig and dukkah, this utterly flavoursome dish was a classic example of why low and slow cooking can really bring out the best in meat. Alissa and I were most impressed by the combination of fig and lamb in this dish; the combination of the sourness of the yoghurt and the sweetness of the fig complemented and enhanced the richness of the lamb. Sipping on the glasses of Tempranillo we had ordered, the savouriness of the wine was well matched to the bold flavours presented here.
I'm a sucker for seafood, so we had to try the Gamba y Sepia mojo verde - skewers of grilled prawn and cuttlefish topped with mojo verde. There is something magical about flame grilled seafood and this was no exception, having a nice speckled char on the outside while being perfectly cooked all the way through - no cottony prawns and tough cuttlefish here. The classic combination of parsley and garlic flavour in the mojo verde worked wonderfully with the freshness of the seafood, and a considered squirt of the the lemon wedge provided the dish with a nice, crisp acidity. We could definitely have gone another round of these.
Though listed as dishes 'to start' with, the plate of pintxos ended up being the (then) penultimate dish to arrive - two each of Pintxos Palmitos (palm heart, olive, tomato and cheese), Pintxos Chorizo con Miel (sausage, honey and cheese) and Pintxos Jamón (dry cured ham, tomato, blue cheese, fig/onion jam). Palm heart is one of those vegetable delicacies I'm so glad to see entering the mainstream consciousness in Perth, however I have to admit I felt it was a little overwhelmed by the boldness of the olive, tomato and cheese flavours. Still, it provided a nice crunch to the pintxos' texture. The Chorizo pintxos was probably our favourite of the three. Chorizo sausage can often be overly firm, but the chorizo used here had a nicer, softer texture while still remaining firm enough to have a certain toothsome bite. Dipped in honey and with the addition of pickles, the sweet, salty and sour flavour combined with the meat made us audibly say 'mmmmmm' at how delicious it was. Finally, the Jamón pintxos - superfluously speared with a toothpick considering it was served on a crunchy cracker - was as tasty as the combination of ham, tomato, blue cheese and fig/onion jam would suggest, the kind of thing that would make great finger food at a party.
We were so into the rapid succession of plates, that I completely forgot to photograph the plate of Chorizo y Jamón until all that was left was a lemon wedge and some traces of green garnish. This was basically a plate of meat that, while tasty and relatively substantial (considering this is tapas) was also probably the least self-contained dish of the lot, being the kind of thing I'd probably prefer to eat with a bit of bread. Its also probably to do with the sequence order in which the dishes were brought out, as it would have been something I'd prefer to have had earlier on, and finished with something heartier. This is not a problem exclusive to Pinchos however, and is a pitfall of this kind of very on-trend share plate ordering in comparison to the carefully curated order of dishes in both degustations and more traditional menus that delineate between an entree and main. Dish order is something for such venues to think about to make their dishes more than the sum of their parts.
With the fast pace that the food was brought out, Alissa and I had only had half our tempranillo when we ate our last slice of chorizo. I could tell from Alissa's body language and her looking at cheese board options that the she was eyeing off the Cheese Board as an end to the meal so we put in an order for the manchego option, served with two kinds of bread, grapes and a chunky fig chutney.
Alissa and I love a good cheese board, and while its simplicity cannot compare to the kind of insane variety offered to us at Caprice in Hong Kong, we were happy to finish on this dish. The manchego's creamy flavour but firm texture was very nice and the chunkiness of the fig jam was so good it almost stole the show.
The Verdict: Very Good
Pinchos is not the most outstanding tapas in Perth, but it certainly is the best value tapas I've had, with a great menu full of delicious options at a very competitive and affordable price point. I don't think I've ever gone for tapas and spent less than $30 a head for food, yet even with our extra order of the cheese board our very filling meal came in under that price point, with our glasses of wine being a reasonable $8 a glass on top of that. Add to this the clever use of the order form and the welcoming casual vibe, and I think Justin Bell has a real hit on this hands. If Perth had a Cheap Eat Under $30 companion to the Good Food Guide like Melbourne and Sydney do, I feel Pinchos would be a strong contender as among the best in this category.
The good news is that next time Alissa and I feel like tapas, I won't think of Admiral Ackbar. Instead, I'll be thinking about Pinchos.