katherine macalister is almost reduced to tears of joy as she discovers a new Spanish restaurant delivering exotic flavours in spades

SHALL we start with that first bite? The one that changed everything. The one that silenced us all, transforming us from a celebrating, raucous crew to one of concentrated, studied calm; our cackles, jokes and puns reduced to an awed silence.

It began with the ‘para picar’, the small bites that have been served for centuries, a smattering of appetisers to stave off the hunger as we surveyed the menu, but I shall never forget that first taste of the onion tortilla – its softness, the real taste of the potato, the depth of the caramelised onion, the love that ran through its eggy veins, so hard to get right compared to the many thoughtless, cheap, tawdry imitations. And yet here, on a little counter on Cowley Road I found tapas heaven.

This eureka moment lasted until the very end of the meal, when we had tried and applauded almost everything on Arbequina Oxford’s simple, cheap menu and we were the last ones to leave, by which time I had died and gone to heaven so many times I must have racked up some major godly air miles.

Not that I was surprised, because this is no ordinary tapas bar – it’s the brainchild of Rufus Thurston, he of Oli’s Thai fame, where you can’t get a table until April. Rufus has been wanting to open a tapas joint for yonks so joined forces with Door 74’s Ben Whyles and opened in November at The Plain end of the street.

To complicate matters further, during the redecoration of Door 74 they unveiled the site’s former pharmacy sign which remains defiantly, so the new restaurant’s real name is almost inconsequential, as if Rufus knew it was irrelevant, and that we would flock their in our droves anyway.

The staff, many of whom have been nicked from other Cowley Road staples, were charming, choosing some delicious wine to accompany our feast.

Accompanying the tortilla was a dish of beetroot parcels with dill, whose taste and texture converted even Mr Greedy who hates the wintery root vegetable. Then some soft, smoky, crunchy, salt cod croquettes with a lovely oily garlicky aioli, and the tomato toast whose sweetness on the chewy Mediterranean bread thanks to a truly wonderful olive oil (from which the restaurant gets its name) had me nearly weeping in gratitude.

There were some mind-blowing chorizo tostadas, a bowl of quails eggs with cumin and salt, pretty as a picture and padron peppers – a Spanish equivalent to Russian roulette where one in 10 will knock your socks off and give your mouth a good chilli rattle. It was mine of course, rendering me insensible for a good 10 minutes, much to everyone’s enjoyment.

Then the mains: the ox cheeks’ deep meaty flavour offset by a wonderfully smooth cauliflower purée and the slow cooked pork belly whose crunchy rosemary and garlic casing enclosed its soft beautifully cooked meat, described as like filo pastry. Even the salad was divine – rendering us almost insensible by this time.

It kept coming – the njuda on toast, a spicy pork salumi, was so thin and soft it melted.

The rich, tempestuous, exotic paste was offset by the sweetness of the ham.

But then came the aubergine molasses and pomegranate and only then could I truly declare that finally, and I mean finally, on this wet, dark, cold mid-week evening, had I found somewhere truly remarkable.

They were light and spongy without being greasy, crispy but not burnt, drenched in honey, their sweetness offset by the sharp pomegranate, making my year in one sublime bite.

To finish then: custard tarts, as simple, tiny, delectable, innocent and fun as finding Tinker Bell in your Christmas stocking.

So it is with this review that I start the New Year, after a year of eating far and wide, well and badly, plainly and richly.

This one little tiny, urban corridor of a restaurant making it all worthwhile.

So go before everyone else hears about it, before the queues stretch out of the door and the waiting list is as long as your arm.

Because even then it’ll be worth it. You’ll thank me, I promise you.

Arbequina Oxford, 74 Cowley Road OX4 1JB 01865 792777