A month after returning from holiday in Spain and I was craving tapas.
Varsity, famed for being one of the city centre’s most popular pubs, isn’t somewhere you expect to go for a patatas bravas fix.
But its recent reopening, after laying derelict for two years, has given it a new lease of life.
Though the name has stayed the same, the upstairs is now Casa Rio, itself a reimagining of the former Casa Rios in The Ropery and West Sunniside.
I wasn’t sure how a tapas restaurant would gel with a late night pub. But the owners have done a stellar job in creating its own character.
Candles help to evoke a more relaxed restaurant vibe, retro images of flamenco dancers pepper the walls and there’s a large feature barrel in a nod to traditional tapas joints.
Formerly a large first floor bar, it’s a pretty cavernous space, that seats around 40 diners. But aside from a giant disco ball above the central staircase adjoining the floors and the distant strain of chart music, which you can only hear inbetween the restaurant’s own, more chilled tunes, you forget about the pub downstairs.
The latter serves bar food, and you can order it from the restaurant menu, but it was tapas which lured us here, and we were sticking with that.
Although there’s no main lift to Casa Rio, tapas and bar food is available on the ground floor, which has a small lift into the bar area.
I was a fan of the restaurant’s former guises and its authentic take on Mediterranean fare. Thankfully, the original chef is back and it shows in the menu, a well thought-out selection of vegetable, meat and fish tapas dishes.
The pricing is simple to keep a check of, too, at £3.95 for vegetable options, £4.50 for meat and £5.95 for fish.
For vegetarians, there’s plenty of animal-friendly options such as dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), Spanish tortilla and a range of patatas bravas.
We chose halloumi, patatas a la casa, chorizo, albondigas (meatballs), house pulled pork and gambas pil pil. Our table was practically over-flowing.
Although tapas is small plates, portion-size is generous here and three choices each was more than enough to satisfy our rumbling tums.
My favourite was the house pulled pork, which was beautifully tender, as it should be with this slow cooked meat. It was infused with a heavy, smokey flavour which made it stand head and shoulders above some of the more bland options served up in some gastro pubs (usually by a bearded bar- man).
But it was a closely fought contest for top tapas with the meatballs, golfball-sized tightly-packed mounds that melted into submission on your tongue.
The potato skins, served in a deep dish and smothered in cheese and jalapeños were the most substantial choice on the table and were more of a culinary foray into Mexico than Spain, but are perfect for those who find regular tapas too teeny.
The gambas pil pil, though delicious, could have done with more of a chilli kick, as they are served in their country of origin, but we devoured the prawns nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the halloumi was served as a trio of giant slabs and wasn’t overly greasy as is often the case with this dish.
Special mention must also go to our waiter, a chirpy fellow whose approach to service was definitely ‘mi casa es tu casa.’