Set your tastebuds off on a European culinary adventure
6th December 2018
When it comes to serving up a virtuoso display of Meditteranean cuisine Soprano doesn’t disappoint, as Andy Tong discovers
When you think tapas, you think of Spain. And when you think of Sopranos, well it’s probably Italian-American mobsters shooting the breeze in a New Jersey trattoria.
How fitting that Soprano Tapas and Wine Bar, on the High Street in Tunbridge Wells, should offer a vibrant fusion of tastes from both those European countries – which is as refreshing as ever after 12 years in the town.
The owners, Ivan and Maurizio Di Santo, come from a restaurateur family in Calabria, the southernmost extremity of mainland Italy. “There is a lot of Spanish influence,” says Ivan, “and a lot of tapas!”
The mixed cultural identity makes perfect sense for the tapas approach to dining, with its broad and distinct range of dishes.
And it comes as no surprise that the brothers have also opened up a French restaurant in town last year, Coco Retro, just a few hundred yards away on Vale Road.
They are busy bringing the best of European cuisine to delight the palate of a town that voted Remain, after all. Perhaps the Di Santos swayed the voters…
When we arrive at Soprano it is a gloriously sun-drenched afternoon and you can easily imagine yourself immersed in some charming spot near the Mediterranean.
I go for a well-bodied house red Cabernet Sauvignon to drink while my guest chooses a glass of the white Rioja. We can taste the anticipation as we lose ourselves in the extensive menu.
It’s so hard to choose with tapas sometimes you want to have about 10 of them but you know you will never get through it all and that wouldn’t be right. So, Ivan takes over and brings a board of coruscating serrano ham topped with shavings of manchego cheese and sliced jalapeno peppers.
It’s a good start. The ham, aged for 18 months, is a sheer delight, appealing far beyond the realm of the taste buds and delving down deep into the soul. It is accompanied by ‘berenjena picante’, an aubergine turret marinaded in Mediterranean herbs, paprika, coriander and olive oil, along with homemade houmous.
The aubergine is a revelation, subtle yet superior. My guest does not eat meat – I feel a little sorry for her as I lay into the ham – but no matter, the eggplant is a huge consolation. It’s followed by another vegetarian showpiece, ‘calabacin frito’, tempura courgettes decorated with pomegranate seeds and served with a spicy aioli dip.
I could have eaten several platefuls but had to surrender the bulk of them to my fellow diner: only fair, given the magical meat feast making my way.
One of Soprano’s favourite showstoppers is the ‘albondigas’ or meatballs, the first dish to appear on the menu when the restaurant opened a dozen years ago.
The composition of the extravagantly rich tomato sauce remains a secret to this day and you can see why it is so closely guarded – it’s so good it makes your eyes water.
There is a mystery ingredient, too, in the ‘pincho de cordero’ or minced lamb kebab, a more delicate offering but with a wonderfully rounded feel. The succulent local meat is marinaded in red Rioja and rosemary, and rests on a bed of braised red cabbage with a yoghurt and coriander sauce.
By this stage I am beginning to feel pretty full. And I haven’t even touched the fish dishes that my guest is tucking into. Clearly I can’t let her have the lot.
She describes the prawn piri piri as ‘packed with flavour,’ and she’s right. You almost want to feel the sauce dripping down your chin. Doused in garlic, chilli and olives with a squeeze of lime, it’s a race to the end of the plate.
Then there’s the pan-fried ‘nuggets de saumon’. It sounds unusual, and it is: coated in pistachio, paprika and oregano breadcrumb. But it is an effective and fascinating comination – and it’s always good to find a new way to enjoy salmon.
Now I wouldn’t normally contemplate desert after a feast like that. But then Ivan produces a homemade chocolate cake, gluten free, made with olive oil and no eggs. It is irresistible – and divine as really only chocolate can be.
There’s also a deep slice of crisp, crumbly pecan pie, and two duelling spoons make light work of these surprisingly light puddings.
Ivan has had his chef, Tony Hutupasu, with him at Soprano since the very beginning in 2006, and together they have refined and evolved the menu to exquisite proportions.
“We strongly believe that with passion and heart, you will always be successful,” says Ivan. “But we also try to innovate and keep changing.”
Ivan spent six months training in Manhattan as a sommelier and cocktail bartender and can now throw into Soprano’s heady mix a range of concoctions designed – unusually perhaps – to accompany the dishes. It all adds to the wow factor.
He recommends the Big Buff, a whisky based fruit blend, to be consumed with chorizo, while the pineapple mojito is a fresh, summery partner for fish dishes, especially calamari, with the acidity of the fruit combining with the freshness of the mint.
“There are a million combinations,” says Ivan with a definite twinkle in his eye. He has also brought in another dimension – 55 gins and 13 tonics – and is busy matching them in the categories of fruity, floral, sweet, herbal and spicy. “We always try to find a new product all the time,” he adds proudly. “We want to be stimulating.”
Soprano is such a Tunbridge Wells success story that Thursday to Saturday nights are for reservations only, and they are booked up to a fortnight in advance. And even after a dozen years, there is no tapas rival in the town. After all, who would dare to take on the Soprano?