Che Argentine Grill, the wunderkind of the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg, recently unveiled its rather cheeky little sister: an ultra-chic and modish cocktail and tapas bar called Al Lado (Spanish for “next door”).
It needs to be understood that Al Lado is first and foremost a hip and fashionable new cocktail bar that serves tapas bites rather than a restaurant that serves great cocktails. Having said that, the tapas selection is both vast and varied; you’ll find cold meat boards, topped bruschetta, fish ceviche and tartares, croquettes, tortillas (Spanish omelettes), oxtail, chorizo, meatballs and more. The menu aims to give patrons a taste of authentic Spanish and South American tapas-style dishes.
The five dishes that catch our eye are toast with asparagus, manchego cheese and romesco sauce; Spanish-style octopus with paprika and potatoes; Peruvian-style kingklip ceviche; meatballs in a Spanish sauce; and roasted pork belly with paprika mashed potatoes.
The asparagus toast arrives first: a slice of warm, toasted bread topped with al dente asparagus and a sprinkling of handsomely robust, manchego cheese – I would highly recommend it. Next come the meat balls: juicy and moreish and accompanied by a thick and luscious sauce, along with the pork belly bites, which are satisfyingly crunchy, but I yearned for more of them on top of the paprika mash.
On this note, the portion sizes do not correlate with some of the prices. The ceviche is exquisitely cured with the perfect balance of acid and seasoning to delicate fish, but the two mouthfuls we enjoy don’t justify the R85 price tag. The same can be said for the octopus: delicate, flavoursome and tender, but the two tiny pieces seem stingy at R70.
Al Lado advertises itself as a bar “mixing up great cocktails and preparing flavourful tapas bites” which it does, but the team needs to rethink some of the food pricing to make it a little more bite-sized.
It is so gratifying to see the number of world-class bars springing up around Johannesburg. With institutions like The Landmark, Sin & Taxes, Marble and now Al Lado in play, the bar has definitely been raised when it comes to what is considered to be a good cocktail.
Al Lado’s mixologists pride themselves in using only hand-picked fruits, herbs and spices that are organic (wherever possible) and are sourced from local markets, in conjunction with craft spirits from 031 Distillery in Durban. They give you the option of designing your own cocktail with their assistance and advice, or if, like me, you prefer a more passive experience, you can order from the list of Twisted Classics, Whiskey Rebellions and Barsmith Picks.
The cocktails are enchanting: The Twisted Classics are exactly that, with their take on the Negroni (with a touch of Aperol and a citrus twist) a definite recommendation. The Barsmith Picks offer anything from strawberry, basil and cracked black pepper caipirinhas to more offbeat inventions like the Nicci, a blend of lavender-infused light rum, Antica Formula vermouth, Rosso vermouth, cold-drip organic coffee, Angostura bitters, organic sugar syrup and egg white. It’s an adventure.
Al Lado also offers an array of craft beers and a few good wines by the glass.
Casual and welcoming. The team is still finding its rhythm, but the waiters are extremely enthusiastic and will go the extra mile.
This place is dark and sultry and the attention to detail is wonderfully seductive. The walls are painted black and covered in picture frames and chalk writing, a few lace curtains hang sporadically from the industrial windows, and the room is lit primarily by candles. You might call it contemporary gothic meets Cuban kitsch. The bar is beautiful with a backdrop of bottles, glasses and plants in a glass-bricked wall. The music is too loud at times and could be better curated. Al Lado is definitely a place to take those who want to experience something cool and in vogue in Joburg, but it’s not a romantic, first-date spot.
Al Lado often has guest DJs on weekends and always does something fun for First Thursdays.