A new tapas bar hidden underneath the Mancunian Way is giving Manchester’s top tapas spots a run for their money.
Tucked away at Hatch – the independent village of shipping containers that is Manchester’s answer to Boxpark – Abeja serves only the finest Southern Spanish produce, all painstakingly sourced from owner Ana Villegas’ hometown of Granada.
As we arrive she’s chatting away merrily to two gents perched at the bar. A biochemist for the past twenty years, Abjea is her first foray into the world of hospitality. Not that you’d be able to tell – she’s so passionate and knowledgeable.
The menu here is small with a focus on fine Andalucian produce. And with room for just 15 covers, the atmosphere is unrivalled.
We start lunch with a glass of vermouth each, on Ana’s recommendation. It might be January now, but this still tastes like Christmas with singing notes of cloves, cinnamon and orange.
These are accompanied by two little pots of olives: one filled with meaty and moreish black morsels, the other with their plump green counterparts.
Granada is known for its perfect olives and these have been hand-selected by Ana herself.
We try a couple of white wines from Andalucia next – comparing the house with a slightly more complex mix of Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The house is very good indeed – dry, fruity and very drinkable. But the other, a 2014 vintage from Granada winery Fontedei, is even more exceptional. Partially fermented in French oak barrels, an initial intense, floral aroma becomes balanced and spicy on the palate
We enjoy these with two tapas classics: croquettes and thick slices of tortilla served warm with homemade aioli and fresh tomato on bread.
Comfort food of the highest order, the fluffy tortilla is elevated above its station by its flavourful accoutrements. The croquettes, meanwhile, are in another league all of their own.
Ana has four flavours to offer: Granada black pudding, langoustine, serrano ham and chicken, and butternut squash with mushroom. Unable to choose, we try them all.
Her langoustine croquettes are rich pinkish-orange inside and taste like the sea, but sweeter. And the ham and chicken are a revelation too, thanks to the additional Serrano ham bones she puts in her chicken stock.
As we eat, she talks us through her cooking process and tells us about how in the south of Spain they absolutely use everything and hate to throw food away.
“We always reuse, our croquettes probably come from leftovers – it’s ingrained in my culture, in me.”
This originates, she explains, from the days of the civil war when the south was really very poor.
Our empty wine glasses whisked away and replaced with light Spanish beer before Ana retreats to prepare an Abeja speciality: aubergine fries with molasses sugar.
“They’re best eaten straight after they come out,” we are warned in advance.
Less like fries, more like churros, these magical creations are practically inhaled when they hit the table.
Light as air, the natural bitterness from the aubergine works well with the cane sugar’s raw sweetness. And as an added bonus, they also happen to be vegan-friendly.
This is what we’ve really come hoping for. It is completely unexpected, a far cry from what Ana describes as “this cliche idea of a tapas bar [with] patatas bravas and all this.”
“I want people to be a bit educated and make them realise it’s not just all this fried stuff.. we eat a lot of things, in fact, we eat a lot of vegetables in Spain – especially in the south,” she tells us.
“It’s true that I’ve got things you will find as well in any other tapas bar like the tortilla, which is you know a classic, and croquettes, but I also felt I wanted to do more things like the aubergines which is a typical dish from the south of Spain.”
Aubergines devoured, we finish up with a platter of charcuterie and cheese – all carefully selected from her hometown with a lot of care and love.
The Guadix, a light pure goat cheese, is semi-cured and creamy but full of strong flavours nonetheless.
The other cheese Ana chooses, Montefrio, is more like a manchego. Made with sheep’s milk, it’s very strong again – in the best possible way.
Next to it, serrano ham melts in the mouth whilst the white sausage and pork terrine makes a lasting impression on us – not just for its take but its fresh texture too.
Sliced in the bar just before it is served, alongside the lomo, chorizo and salchichón it is a real game-changer.
We wash all this down with two more wines, this time moving onto the reds. I try a vegan ecologic with no sulphites and minimal intervention, whilst my partner opts for the Munana 3 Cepas – or ‘the three grapes.’
Mine is definitely for meat and cheese, not drinking alone. Relatively young, it has been aged for three months but is still quite fiery and pungent.
The Munana 3 Cepas, on the other hand, is an uncompromising delight: full-bodied, peppery and spiced. Aged for 12 months in French oak barrels, it’s a combination of Cab Sav, petit verdot and tempranillo. It’s also an absolute steal at just £28 for the bottle.
By this point, we’re merry and we don’t want to leave. Such is the charm of Abeja.
Inside feels a world away from the grim old January day we left outside just a few hours before. Fortunately, Ana has one more trick up her sleeve to wow us with before we go. A whiskey from Granada.
We take a dram for the road, mopping up bread and olive oil alongside it, and depart amid plentiful promises to return soon before landing back out in the cold on Oxford road.
Yes, the food here is exceptional, but the atmosphere in this tiny tapas bar is also unrivalled by anywhere else we’ve visited in the city so far. We haven’t just had a great meal here, we also feel like we’ve made a new friend.
Abeja is open at Hatch on Oxford Road Tuesdays and Wednesdays 12/12.30pm until 9pm, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays until 11pm. On Sundays the whole of Hatch closes at 6pm.