Guest Edited by FFT’s regular appearer… Jimmy.
I hate having to decide my favourite anything. I’ve never been able to say what my favourite book/album/film/holiday/power ranger was. Same with restaurants. How is it possible to choose one restaurant as your favourite, when mine changes depending on how I feel, what I’m in the mood for, what the weather’s like, if I want to celebrate or commiserate? Maybe I’m indecisive, but I just couldn’t tell you what my favourite restaurant is. Or I could. But it would be different in an hour. However, I do have a shortlist of about 6 which I would call my favourite places (in London at least). I’m tempted to keep this list to myself but seeing as this blog is currently not reaching the millions of readers it so richly deserves I will let you lucky people in on my top places in London. This is big. Huge actually. These are places where you are more or less guaranteed to eat well and have a good time. If you don’t you can send a strongly worded complaint to Frog (Food For Thought). The rest of you can send me profuse thanks and undying admiration (cash accepted too). In no particular order, they are:
6 Portland road
Which brings me to Barrafina, where Frog (Frog is your usual correspondent aka Food For Thought) and I had lunch on Sunday. We went to the one on Dean Street, which is actually in Quo Vadis, another excellent Hart Brothers establishment (a place I was briefly banned from. Come to think of it I’m not sure I’m not still banned. Sam and Eddie if you are reading this please can you un-ban me??)
Anyway, the original Barrafina, which caused quite a stir when it opened in 2007, has had to relocate a short hop away to Dean street due to lease issues, and is none the worse for it. Since 2007, two further Barrafina’s have opened but this gradual expansion has in no way affected the quality of the food, a trick which is hard to pull off. Although the location has changed, and Nieves, the original chef at Barrafina Frith Street, has left to set up the equally wonderful Sabor, the queues remain, even on a rainy Sunday.
We got there just in time at 12.55 and managed to get a table as soon as the doors opened at 1. Inside the atmosphere took us out of dull, wet London and into a bustling tapas bar in Barcelona, complete with shouts of ‘Oido!’ and ‘Ola Chicos!’.
To start we ordered some almonds (the flat Spanish ones. Salty and crunchy and an excellent way to start) and small peppers I forget the name of, but much like Padron peppers but thinner, which were on the specials board. They were great. Tasted just like Padron peppers. But thinner.
Also, you have to order the pan con tomate, which the Spanish speakers among you may be able to translate. It was wonderful. It’s a truism, but no less true for it being so, but simple things are really easy to fxxk up. They require great ingredients cooked really well. Which is why so many places serve complicated bollocks.
Anyway, this was simplicity at its best. Crunchy, crusty bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with tomato pulp, slicked with olive oil. Couldn’t be easier. But how many times have you eaten a disappointing version of this? The number of things that can turn this dish into a disaster: soggy, pappy bread that soaked up too much juice, under-seasoned watery tomatoes, acrid olive oil etc etc. This (apart from the tomato pulp being a bit too cold) was perfect. The sort of stuff you could eat every day for the rest of your life and not become jaded.
Next, I had some croquetas made from morcilla, a Spanish black pudding. I love croquetas + I love black pudding = I loved, loved this dish. Super light crust giving way to a warm morcilla béchamel-type filling. There was some lemon gel on top to cut through the richness. I could have eaten 4, maybe 6.
Frog and I shared (she doesn’t eat meat, so I sort of operate on the what’s mine is mine and what’s yours we share basis) the baby gem, shallot, pancetta and anchovy salad. I must have had this salad 20 times but I never get bored. It’s the perfect salad. Delicious finely diced shallot dressing (tastes like the shallots you get when you make a reduced white wine/shallot sauce), really good olive oil and chives with crisp baby gem, even crisper pancetta and some anchovies. Again, simple but trust me, it’s more than the sum of its parts.
Next, we had some of the fishy specials including a couple of Carabinero prawns. These big, pink beautiful crustaceans are, IMHO, the most delicious prawns. Simply grilled and served with sea salt and olive oil (to mess these things around should be punishable by some sort of moderate flogging). We were instructed to rip the heads off and suck out the juices (err obvi. This isn’t my first rodeo chico). Frog didn’t really like the head-juice oddly, so I greedily sucked hers as well.
For those of you who don’t suck prawn heads, or gnaw bones, or winkle away at a crab for hours to get the tiny bits of sweet flesh, or eat the cheeks of the sea bass or find the oysters on the roast chicken, or scoop out the bone marrow on an osso bucco, well I’m not sure we can be friends …… Sorry where was I? Yes. Prawn heads. Suck them next time. They don’t have to be the Carabinero variety. All prawns have tasty heads. If I can teach anyone anything then let it be that. We also had some crispy anchovies with a horseradish mayo (fine but nothing to write about. So I won’t), and traditional Galician Style octopus which was delicious. All caper-y and paprika-y and oily and yummy. God I love Octopus.
Barrafina, for a tapas bar, has always had good puds. Today I tried another special. Coconut flan (I hate that word flan. Nothing should be called a flan. It sounds sexual and not in a good way). This ‘flan’ was really a panna cotta or a set custard, with a delicious raspberry sorbet, some lemon curd and some crumbly crumbs of something biscuity. It was good although not particularly coconut-heavy. I’m very in to coconut and wanted a bit more of it in this dish. Anyway I’m nit-picking here.
The thing about really great restaurants is that you can go back time after time, lunch or dinner, just yourself or a big group, have a blow out or just a salad, and they will satisfy every time. Barrafina is just that. (I have a friend who works near the Adelaide street one who used to go there for lunch 3 times a week. He never had a bad dish. Not once. NB: Remarkably he didn’t seem to get fat which is either a reflection of his admirable metabolism or the non-fattening nature of the food. Possibly grounds for an experiment in due course. But I digress. These handful of restaurants are places that reflect the passion and dedication of the people behind them, and make the hugely difficult business of running a restaurant seem effortless. Day after day after day, service after service, these places carry on producing food, and thus experiences, that people cherish. And queue for. In the rain.
– Jimmy (Guest Editor)