'A beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar....'
(Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die...)
(Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die...)
TO ME, ‘tapas’ is a way of eating. Plentiful appetising plates shared; a celebration of colour, texture and even temperature. In that sense, Dim Sum follows the same formula. Craving variety, even in conventional restaurants, I often explore more of a venue’s menu by sharing an extra dish or two, which I suppose fits (and inevitably fattens) the bill.
It will come as no surprise therefore that I began salivating the second I heard my foodie friends’ latest mission: sample six of the capital’s top tapas bars in as many hours.
I dream of indulging in a menu where a flurry of ‘tapastic’ appetisers are prepared and eaten in Spain, the main and cheese course, France, concluding with a pampering, sweet extravaganza in Italy. About 500miles, and God knows how many calories. All in a long afternoon. Our tapas tour, whilst smaller in scale, struck the same nerve...
Spanish Liquid Sunshine, British Climate...
Early on a Friday afternoon, with two fellow epicureans, I joined the queue for Borough Market’s Brindisa (reservations not accepted). With little means, but fuelled by the desire to ‘spread pleasure’ with Spanish products, British born Monika Linton founded the parent specialist import company twenty years ago. The most recent offshoot: a fairly raw bar/Jamoneria, theoretically showroom to the finest ingredients.
Our start was inauspicious. Seated on the pavement next to a bin, tears of English liquid sunshine fell around us. We selected copitas of nervy Manzanilla. ‘La Gitana’ had a whiff of kelp, Tabasco and marsh samphire with a strict, blotter-dry palate. Incidentally, the characteristic salty tang comes from a natural yeast blanket called 'flor' which stops oxygen turning the wine to vinegar in cask.
Whilst we encountered no poor ingredients (there would be no excuse, being within a market nicknamed ‘London’s Larder’) the kitchen’s focus occasionally blurred. Gazpacho with a brittle wafer of fried bread was overly frothed and lacked acidic bite. Meaty, succulent garlic prawns fried in chilli and oil, with blanched parsley, wanted for the lifting cloves sufficient to ward away vampires. Small, salty pan-fried Padrón peppers were universally mild. About one in ten are fiery and I like the Russian roulette concept. The Spanish describe the surprise one as a ‘pequeño pero matón’ (teeny-weeny thug).
The highlight was a cross section of Monte Enebro, a goat’s log made by a retired builder and his daughter outside Madrid. This cossetingly melty, slightly citric, nutty segment was served warm, licked by clear, runny honey.
We intended to sample a control ‘tapa’ at each location. Croquettas, the onion bhaji of Spain’s gastronomic canon, seemed an obvious choice. Brindisa’s versions had thick crusts but disapointingly lubricious centres.
Overall, staff noticeably unsympathetic to our tapas crawl left us under-whelmed. The service charge was questionable considering that we had to beg for cutlery and join a line to pay. But the cheese appeased.
18-20 Southwark St., Borough, London. SE1 1TJ. T. 020 7357 8880
High on Txacolina
By almost staged contrast, those working the counters at colourful Pinchito (named in honour of ‘pintxos’, Basque skewered bread bites) were aflame with interest.
Six friends united by a love for everything Iberian launched this sequel to a successful opening in Brighton. Apparently ‘trendy Shoreditch’ reminds them of Barcelona’s café and culture laden Calle, ‘El Born’. An eclectic soundtrack, including Frank Sinatra played on the jukebox.
Almost every bottle is available by the glass. We drank tumblers of Txacolina, a subtly spritz-laden, inexpensive white from San Sebastián. Like the local cider, this is theatrically poured from a height, which angers it into a fleeting froth. With a perfume of snowdrop and a crisp, refreshingly cleansing palate, it is curiously addictive and light in alcohol.
The most desirable dish was Hangar Steak (onglet). The succulently sealed, smokey meat evoked well hung game. It was coolly coated by a fringe of paprika spiked, oil and garlic infused aioli.
Profoundly spiced Cumin Pork Kebabs showed a Moroccan influence. Cold Squid morsels were lacquered by greaseless, buoyantly fresh vinaigrette. Finally, mixed meat Croquettas were firmer and sweeter then Brindisa’s and reassuringly irregular in appearance.
Pinchito’s tapas were nurturing in a homemade sense, rather than pristinely executed. This prompts the question, what is most important: an involving ambience or fine-tuned kitchen? Intoxicated by the cosy kitchen aromas, and feeling the effect of the unusual wine’s staccato bubbles, we felt inclined to abandon the rest of our tapas fantastica in favour of a lazy afternoon in Shoreditch...
32 Featherstone St., London. EC1Y 8QX. T. 020 7490 0121
Sam and Samantha Clark, founders of Exmouth Market’s stark gymnasium of a space, Moro, are clearly influenced by the Moorish Mediterranean. Indeed, no fewer than fourteen Middle Eastern suppliers are logged on their website. The story goes that the two cooks became lovers then travelled around Spain, Morocco and the Sahara in a camper van, cooking history along the way…
Despite the charmless room, we were quietened by the quality of a still warm breath of Moro’s bakery. From the wood-burning oven, the crumpet like sourdough slices were chalky in appearance with a gentle charcoal taste.
From a thoughtful, accessible wine list which celebrates sherry, we drunk Priorat, an intense, inky, mineral laden red from ancient slate soils in Catalonia’s remotest region. For connoisseurs, these wines are considered catwalk material. Giné Giné’s drowningly deeply coloured, herbal version was infused with blackcurrants, liquorice, salt crystals and crushed vanilla pods.
Unfortunately, Moro was too cool for croquettas. Instead, grilled butterflied Chorizo looked queasily like an extended tongue and had the sparse consistency and taste of a Merguez sausage – an observation rather then a complaint. Pristine, dense, room temperature Tortilla, formed of potato and sweet onions dabbed with oil, involved almost no egg. Chilled Ajo Blanco (almond and garlic soup) evoked liquefied halva. It possessed an enchanting, long-lived sweetness with a dense, silky texture. Ember roasted Piquillo peppers (meaning ‘little beak’) were simultaneously sweet and spicy.
Whilst we encountered slightly stiff service, our limited insight revealed an agile, ambitious kitchen. Despite softening flowers and charmingly squidgy clay candleholders, the almost bolshily harsh architecture of the big room (which seats over 100) lacked warmth however, especially compared to Pinchito’s intimacy.
34-36 Exmouth Market, London. EC1R 4QE. T. 020 7833 8336
We had reached the halfway point.
Cigala, meaning lobster, was created by one of Moro’s former partners. The bright white and wood rooms with bleached linen cloths, motifed mirrors, canteen globes and shop sized windows elegantly suggested a near perfect lunch venue.
From the informative, most novelly arranged wine list so far, I chose beige coloured Palo Cortado, which coolly fitted the décor. This softer, deeper, rarer version of Manzanilla had an aftertaste of split, salted macadamias. My fellow gastronaughts, ever unsatiated, chose a bottle of Rioja ‘Paisajes’, meaning landscapes. There is flavour in geography and these wines are named after specific sites. ‘V’, from mountainous Valsala was beautifully built with an almost mauve rim, a sign of its youth. The supple collage of cassis, cedar, freshly turned, sun-scorched iron rich earth and dark cherry flavours had a tuning fork finish.
However liquid pleasure and studio like location was not enough. Every venue has a down day. Despite puffs of brioche like bread, every other so-called comestible that crawled to our table was lacklustre and poorly executed.
Morcilla a la Brasa (grilled black pudding) was an unphotogenic, flaccid, damp pile. Overcooked Navajas a la Plancha (grilled razor clams) posed a masticative challenge. A cake of tender poached Salted Pork Shoulder was camoflauged by a dense mayonnaise ‘icing’. And finally Findus looking, UHU glue centred croquettas looked like a dog had excreted them.
Despite arguing for a living, one of our trio, a successful lawyer, wouldn’t allow us to complain. “It’s not the British way”, he said, adding “it’s my day off”. This was a shame because barely touched plates and a premature request for the bill didn’t appear to concern the staff.
No cigar, Cigala. Matters require urgent attention.
54 Lamb's Conduit St., London. WC1N 3LW. T. 020 7405 1717
Nearest Tube: Russell Square
Salt Yard was founded by former Brindisa staff. The glamorous bar was the most personal. Serrano ham coloured walls met suede curtains. Seating was soft leather. Italy provides an additional influence, especially within the wine list, which is roughly half Italian. We drank strikingly embossed bottles of beer. Alhambra Reserva 1925 was dark amber with caramel, chicory and rich malt notes bound within a gliding, oily consistency.
Greaseless, oval croquettas infilled with Morcilla were nurturing: tender in texture. Chiselled slithers of Acorn Fed Bellota Jamón Iberico from Extremadura, were satin soft: discreetly but deeply salted with a subtle condensation. Padrón peppers were potent; we found our Scoville siren. Three Manchego blocks: young (with an almost yoghurt suppleness), viejo (tangily mature) and rosemary flecked (tasting of grassy silage) came classically, with Membrillo dice. These tasted somewhere between dried apricot and earthy truffle and enriched Spain’s most famous hard cheese. Rather swish Smoked Monkfish with nervy Gooseberry Purée and translucent Spanish Pancetta was served cold, and easily dissolved.
Depite the fact we were becoming slightly worse for wear, the staff were gracious, tolerant and knowledgeable. Components were the most breathtaking so far, although the downstairs dining room looked a little blue. On the strength of our experience, I would keenly try sister venture, Dehesa.
Six hours from meeting at Borough, our tapas tour concluded at Fino, a subterranean space reminiscent of a five star hotel lobby. The vast, ultra posh venue was visualised by triathlon running hermanos, Sam & Eddie Hart, forces behind Barrafina and the recently relaunched Quo Vadis.
Wearily propped against the marble bar, we enjoyed fluffy Crab Croquetta parcels, delicately flavoured within an easily ruptured, brittle exterior. Moist, shiny, fragile flavoured quail birds looked rudely nude, prostrate like beach bronzing naturists. Despite a distended tummy, I still found room to heartily suck the flesh from the bones.
We raised glasses of our barman’s homemade after dinner brew. Mouthwash pink, it tasted of cloves, liquorice and anise. After a revitalising bittersweet sip, one of my friends said: “Good stuff, gentlemen. Now, where shall we go for dinner?”
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