There are so many Spanish restaurants in Oxford so entering into that market, never-mind doing it in the middle of a pandemic, seems crazy. Thanks to a belief in authenticity, community values, and affordably excellent food, El Rincón has built a loyal Summertown following that is primed to explode. Here, chef Juan recognises the difference between authenticity and tradition — classic tapas dishes are present, but alongside his partner Rosaleen, this chef is bringing the cutting edge of Spanish cuisine to the UK.
I visited just a day after returning from Bilbao, the capital of all things pintos and Spanish cuisine. Expectations then were perhaps unfairly high but stepping out of the rain and into the Andalucían-esque bar and restaurant felt momentarily like a brief return to the sun I had been enjoying the previous week. Juan previously worked at Le Manoir Quatre Saisons before breaking away and offering paellas and pintxos on his own at Gloucester Green market. During the second lockdown, he was offered the chance to use the garden of El Rincón as a pop-up location and began offering paella afternoons with his partner Rosaleen. Somewhat remarkably, the pair then took the opportunity to take over the restaurant full-time. What is more, somehow, some way, they have kept their values front and centre and made a success of it.
That authenticity was on show right from the off. As we chatted with Juan and Rosaleen before tucking into lunch, Txakolí and almonds were on offer — apart from the lack of spout for the authentic Basque pouring show, I again felt transported back to Bilbao.
The night before, Juan had hosted his first-ever tasting menu evening. These offer guests a chance to experiment with a wide variety of dishes that are at the forefront of contemporary Spanish cuisine. There was salmon left so I was hardly going to turn down a sample! The fish is filled with three different cheeses (Gorgonzola, blue goat’s cheese, and an Italian creamed cheese) from Oxford Cheese Company. These all combined to cancel out their own individually strong flavours and the nature of the salmon meant that it too was able to balance the rest of the dish. A corn emulsion adds textural contrast and the micro salad garnish of garlic and radish brings a sharpness. Now, this dish is completely different to the rest of the menu and what you can expect on your average visit to El Rincón but in so many ways it embodies just what the restaurant is about. The thought behind the dish exemplifies the effort that Juan goes to with everything on offer and the use of high-quality local produce demonstrates the passionate belief in independents supporting independents.
We then moved swiftly on to the more traditional dishes you might expect from a tapas restaurant. Again though, these all carry a slight twist to make them El Rincón’s own. For all my love of complex food, I am a patatas bravas fiend. Sometimes you simply can’t beat some fried potatoes and spicy tomato sauce. The dish varies highly across Spain and pretty much every Spanish chef has a firm opinion on how it should be done. In England, the sauce often contains tomatoes and dilutes the punchy flavour you find in its home ‘país’. Juan has gone on both a literal and culinary journey with his sauce and incorporates elements from across the country including smoked paprika, vinegar, and chilli. The result is a dip just spicy enough (significantly turned down for the English market) that goes brilliantly with the homemade aioli.
The artichoke flowers came next and two gigantic artichoke flowers at that. Pedro Ximenez drizzle brings sweetness and the batter is thin and light to ensure the vegetable shines through just as it should. Next was Bacalao en Tempura and yet again I was at first taken aback by what arrived. Defying Spanish expectations, the cod is beer-battered with Estrella Galicia to create a true amalgamation of cuisine and a kind of Spanish ‘fish and chips’. The kiwi mayonnaise and pumpkin seeds elevate the dish and the use of Icelandic cod means that the fish is thick and meaty in texture.
Tuna arrived two ways, both using the high-quality blue-fin variety often neglected in the UK where import prices are higher than ever. The hot dish is grilled and then served with a PX sauce and cucumber chunks. The cucumber contrasts the texture of the fish and the freshness of both is highlighted by the rich sauce. That freshness is more than present too in the tuna tartare. Here, avocado is chopped along with onion and green chilli before serving atop a bed of yuzu seaweed for a real pallet cleanser.
Octopus is another one of the El Rincón showstoppers. Served in the style typical of Galicia with smoked paprika and olive oil, Juan places it atop mashed potato. Yet again, this prospect might horrify the tapas traditionalist, but once more the embracing of English twists and flavours works brilliantly. My biggest dislike of mashed potato is its dryness and thickness but that is countered here by the olive oil and the juices of the octopus. The fish itself is frozen on the boat and arrives whole in Summertown — Rosaleen says that after a few fairly sketchy attempts Juan has now got the preparation down to a tea! Ortiguillas, or sea urchins, are one of those marmite Andalusian delicacies understandably impossible to find anywhere else. Juan fries them to achieve a crispy exterior and uses a passion fruit glaze and artichoke emulsion to try and calm down their signature strong flavour. I’m thankful that it is far from lost though whilst Rosaleen unashamedly admits she can’t stand them!
And finally on the savoury side of things comes the roasted leek with romanesco sauce and the ox cheek. Another example of the power of vegetables when used the right way, the leek is perfectly cooked: just enough to fall apart but not too much to lose flavour or texture. The traditional romanesco sauce is equally superb and grated pistachios enhance the flavours even further. Ox cheek is such a rare cut of meat in the UK but so popular in Spain. Juan slowly stews it in a sauce that is one of his proudest items on the menu. There is no flour here, instead the mix of wines is extremely concentrated and results in an inescapable and deliciously strong flavour. The meat falls apart and is served atop fries — although it might seem like a strange choice this is again a demonstration of how Juan is blending high-quality cuisine with traditional Spanish dishes and styles.
Room for dessert was severely limited but a Basque cheesecake to share is always a good idea if you ask me. Homemade of course, it wasn’t standout but the raspberry coulis added a sharp touch to an often bland dish.
Like any good Spanish establishment, the drinks list is very much a priority. Rosaleen and Juan have worked with the Oxford Wine Company ever since they opened to import a hugely wide-ranging list of options, the best of which are from Spain. There are sherries of all types available and our Pablo Cortado more than did the job, coming in at very fair value given its signature 12-year aging process for £5.20 a glass. With the fish, I had a glass of La Miranda, a Garnacha Blanca from Somontano. Dangerously easy drinking, the nose was very flowery but not over dominating with seafood. The house Albariño is similarly simple and works with pretty much everything on the menu, as Albariño almost always does. Red-wise, the house option is Sembro from the Duero. A classic tempranillo, its lightness could easily lend itself to a fish, especially a cod or tuna, as well as meat. From Navarra, the Inurrieta Norte is only a 2020 vintage but is already very full-bodied, much like a typical Bordeaux. To finish up I can’t recommend anything other than Patxarana — have you really visited Spain otherwise? Beers wise you can of course get an Estrella but Alhambra, 1906 Reserva, a variety of ciders, and clara make for authentically novel options.
El Rincón has combined so much of what makes Spanish food culture so good. Ingredients are high-quality and superb, Juan puts his own spin on all the reliable classics just as any Spaniard worth his salt does, the drinks list is extensively innovative, and the local community are front and centre. This is a project of real love and passion for Rosaleen and Juan and they are building something truly special. A little touch of everything that makes the country they love so special is here in abundance. Whether it is for one of the tasting menu events, some classic tapas, or a Sunday paella in the garden, be sure to pop along for a true taste of that Spanish experience.