Faster and faster the dancers twirl; their stamping shoes pounding the flamenco beat into the restaurant’s wooden floor. I’m back at the site of the Balmain Working Men’s Institute marvelling at how well this beautiful old building (completed in 1896) lends itself to a Spanish aesthetic.
With the Saturday night live flamenco floorshow stirring our blood and getting our hearts racing, we take a cue from the lace-clad señorita on the wall, who is contemplating a glass of red wine.
While the wine list is uncompromisingly Spanish, the descriptions are well written and, if my 2008 Corona D Aragon Garnacha Cariñena ($60/bottle) was anything to go by, they’re also accurate.
Owner Kevin Bowen might not be Spanish, but he is a globetrotter who is “sitting at sixty countries now, including all but two of the total Spanish speaking countries in the world.” He has owned Alegrias for more than two years, buying it from a pair of chefs who had to return to Spain. He explains he has built it “from a struggling business to one of the most popular restaurants in Balmain.”
On the busy Saturday night I visit, every table is full, with a steady turnover of tables. As you'd expect from a mostly tapas menu that lends itself to sharing, large groups are numerous, and the noise level in the open-plan, two-level space is lively, even when the floor show takes a break. The convivial soundscape makes it easy to sit back with your wine and simply soak up the flavours in the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota ($24.90) – Spanish ham from black-footed, acorn-eating pigs. Dissolving a thin slice of this richly flavoured meat on my tongue with a splash of old-vine garnacha, is the closest I come to Communion, and I lean back in my seat to savour the moment fully.
Croquetas de Espinacas y Queso Azul ($15.90) – spinach and blue cheese croquettes – are so good, I can ignore that they’re presented on a slate tile with retro squiggles of aioli.
The squiggles also make their way onto the Morcilla a la Plancha Con Queso y Cebolla Caramelizada ($17.90) – a super-tasty quinteto of grilled blood sausage with goats’ cheese caps, glued to the slate tile with caramelised onion and tomato marmalade. I'm impressed that the morcilla is kept as the hero of the dish, rather than disguised as crumbs on top of something more widely appealing; but the paprika mayo. feels a bit superfluous.
You’ll want some Rustic Sourdough ($5.90) to mop up the juices of the Almejas al Tío Pepe ($17.90) though do look carefully for tiny pieces of shell. While our Cloudy Bay clams had been handled a bit brutally by the fast-paced kitchen, I adored the simplicity of the sauce made from cured ham, garlic, parsley and the famous Tío Pepe fino-style, dry sherry.
An eye-catching cuarteto of bright red piquillo peppers - Piquillos rellenos de Gambas ($16.90) – stuffed with savoury prawns and seasonal vegetables then drizzled (albeit strangely) with a mango vinaigrette – are a very flavoursome way to fill out any corners. However you could also resort to the more obvious Spanish carbohydrates – from Patatas bravas to multiple types of Paella – if you find yourself hungry.
While the young but enthusiastic floor team tell us four tapas plates will do, we did push it to five to get in some greens. Espinacas a la Catalana ($13.90) – Catalan-style sautéed baby spinach is lightly cooked and dotted with pine nuts, sweet wine-infused raisins and apple slices. Luckily the sweet bursts are a good stand-in for dessert, because (like the staff implied) we don’t have any remaining room, even after skipping over rice and potatoes…
Alegrias Spanish Tapas
Shop 9, 332 Darling Street, Balmain
Ph: (02) 8065 5686