Sometimes, when local pubs introduce alternative dining options to the de rigueur ‘pub grub’, regular punters can be known to treat the new venture with trepidation. But this isn’t the case with Galapagos at The Old Vine in Cousley Wood. Just a few months ago, Kate Edom and Andres Villamuga took over the running of this establishment, bringing with them fresh ideas and a new take on dining – introducing a South American inspired menu, and when I visit, this new concept is clearly a winning one.
My guest and I arrive on a Friday evening to what on the outside might appear to be your regular village pub, but once through the doors and past the bar area where groups are enjoying the start to their weekend, there’s something much more exotic to be discovered.
The restaurant area’s dark oak ceiling beams are perhaps the only remaining notable feature of its past life – now the walls are adorned with beautiful bright artwork (all hand painted by renowned artist and Andres’ father Alyvar Villamuga), and, as Kate explains to us as she shows us to our table, the new fresh décor is a far cry from the dark room with heavy drapes they transformed when they got the keys to the pub earlier in the summer.
The exterior has also benefited from the artist’s talent – the Ecuadorian vibes are continued in the outside dining and drinking area with a large vibrant mural, so that even when the sun isn’t shining, you can at least imagine you’re somewhere far-flung…
We finish admiring the paintings and turn our attention to what we’re really here for: the food. Kate and Andres have introduced a whole host of South American flavours, taking inspiration from Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil to devise a unique menu with a whole host of mouth-watering options.
We begin by ordering drinks from the extensive wine list – on Kate’s recommendation I opt for the Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon (£7.90) which is deliciously fruity with a long, dry finish, and a great accompaniment for the flavours on the menu.
There’s a number of delicious sounding, authentic starter options, ranging from a Latin American baked pastry filled with Argentine beef to King scallops, but there’s just one winner for me, and that’s the Ceviche de Camaron – an Ecuadorian speciality of marinated prawns with lime juice, coriander, onion and fresh tomatoes (£7.50).
I’m always automatically drawn to anything containing prawns, and this definitely doesn’t disappoint. Served with popcorn to soak up the tomato sauce, it’s absolutely packed with juicy prawns, and the tomatoes teamed with the lime and coriander are divine – fresh, zesty and refreshing.
My guest has chosen the Chorizo Argentino (£6), a homemade chorizo sausage served with a tangy salsa criolla, which is equally as pleasing – the sausage isn’t cured and spicy like a Spanish chorizo, but is just as flavoursome, and delicious when teamed with the freshness of the salsa.
Starters successfully demolished, it’s time to see whether our choices of mains can possibly top them. Although my gut instinct is to choose the Gambon Argentino, I decide that double prawn dishes probably doesn’t make for the most well-rounded review, so instead I choose the Lomo Saltado – a traditional Peruvian dish containing flash-fried spicy fillet steak, a mixture of vegetables and spices, and served with rice (£17.80).
It soon transpires that I have no reason to regret forgoing the prawns because this is amazing. The beef is succulent, the Aji Amarillo chillis add a wonderful warm kick, and even though at first I’m concerned the dish might need some kind of sauce in order for the rice not to be dry, this turns out not to be the case at all. Not only does this taste incredible, it’s a feast for the eyes too with vibrant peppers and chillis bringing the plate to life.
The Cariucho de Pollo (£15.50) is my guest’s selection – a traditional Ecuadorian dish made with chicken breast in peanut butter sauce, and served with rice and avocado. His first impression is that it might be sweet in the way that a satay sauce is, but it’s actually surprisingly fresh. The additional avocado brings another dimension to the dish both in texture and flavour, and he enjoys his selection so much he promises to attempt recreating it at home.
While we’re finishing our mains (which, by the way, we literally eat every last morsel of), the couple on the next table ask their waiter to speak to the management. Kate attends to them, and I hear them asking her what the secret ingredient is to the lemon cheesecake because it’s the best they’ve ever had.
Now, when you hear claims like this, all thoughts of being full and dessert not being necessary go out of the window, and we find ourselves also ordering two puddings to share – the now infamous Tarta de Queso y Limon (£6.50) and one of Andres’ recommendations, the Don Pedro, which is an Argentinian ice cream dessert made with whisky, and lots of it (£7.50).
The lemon cheesecake is every bit as fantastic as expected; wonderfully creamy with a strong citrusy profile and just a hint of sweetness to balance out the sharpness from the lemon.
The Don Pedro turns out to be a delight too – the vanilla ice cream is lifted by the whisky and nuts atop it, and when Andres comes out to personally check we’ve enjoyed our meals, he tells us that when people try this delicacy they wonder why they haven’t doused their ice cream in whisky before. I certainly know I’ll be attempting to recreate this at home.
Galapagos has such a warm and inviting atmosphere that we sit for a while once our bowls are licked clean and enjoy the Friday night buzz. The staff are all incredibly friendly, and Kate and Andres take every opportunity they can to personally greet the diners and check they’re enjoying themselves. It’s these little touches that really make dining at Galapagos a special occasion, and teamed with a delectable selection of authentic Latin American dishes, I think this restaurant will be a firm favourite for regulars and newcomers alike over the coming months and years.