AUTHENTIC Spanish tapas whipped up in Sunderland city centre?
Yes, in a city saturated with Italian and Indian restaurants, Casa Rio has ventured to Spain for its culinary inspiration.
Such was the success of the original Casa Rio in Deptford, the owners moved it to a more central location in Sunniside.
Now the former Signatures restaurant has been transformed into a Mediterranean haven with a rich red and vibrant terracotta theme complemented by Spanish paraphernalia.
I’ve eaten tapas many, many times in its birthplace so I was eager to see if Casa Rio would pass muster.
It had already got off to a flying start with me after a palate-pleasing visit to Deptford earlier in the year. Thankfully, the owners don’t seem to have tampered too much with this winning formula.
The menu is bursting with choice and can be a little daunting at first but it’s better to have too much choice than too little.
As a handy guide, the dishes are coloured and priced to match the colour with red dishes priced £3.45; green dishes at £4.95; purple dishes at £3.95 and blue dishes at £3.95.
For those watching the pennies, you can visit during happy hour and pick up three dishes for £7.95.
While we decided on our main dishes, we ordered the tabla de queso y fiambre to quell our hanger pangs.
For our £6.95 we were presented with a selection of mixed cheese, cured meats, olives, sundried tomato and fresh bread, served on a traditional slate.
There was plenty to satisfy four girls as we gossiped between mouthfuls of tasty morsels.
We took a democratic decision for our main course, ordering two dishes each which we all shared.
For the non-sharers out there, there’s a separate grill menu and “panella” menu, which is Casa Rio’s take on the classic Spanish paella, but for one person.
Dishes are made to order so all are served at different times.
First off the block was the queso chipriote. As a self-confessed cheese addict, this dish of fried halloumi was right up my street and I savoured every bite.
Never content with just one dose of cheese, I also ordered the croquetas de queso y jamón (deep fried croquettes of cheese and ham) on a bed of tomato sauce.
My friends ordered more meatier dishes for us to devour and we worked our way through chorizo al vino tinto (Spanish sausage cooked in red wine.); ternera a la riojana (beef stew); gambas al ajillo (prawns in olive oil and garlic); ropa marisol (pork loin with harissa paste); pan fresco (homemade fresh bread, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar) and pollo fuego (chicken breast in a tomato and chilli salsa).
The chorizo in particular was exceptional, some of the best I’ve tasted in fact and we battled it out to nab the last chunk.
The croquettes too were perfection on a plate.
The pork was a slight let down as it didn’t live up to our expectations but the beauty of tapas is that if you don’t like a dish you can just move onto the next.
Though super friendly, the service was a little slow but, to give the staff their dues, the restaurant, though newly-open, was bustling with diners.
It just goes to show that there is demand out there if only more restaurants in Sunderland would follow Casa Rio’s lead and break the mould.