Food and Drink: Enough bull to convince a matador: Sand in the ashtrays, blood-red walls. Emily Green visits a Spanish restaurant with a strong sense of the dramatic

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SAMPLING the gritty powder in a dish on the table was not a good idea. It was dirty, coarse and clung to my tongue. This was no roughly ground spice, but sand. The dish was an ashtray.

Not every Spanish restaurant lines its ashtrays with golden sand especially imported from Seville. The owners of Albero and Grana, a three-week-old restaurant in South Kensington, say it is an allusion to the bullring.

Nor do many Spanish restaurants have walls painted deep red. At Albero and Grana, this is a florid reference to the matador, the picadors and the proud agony of the bull.

In fact, I have never seen a restaurant in Spain indulge in such dramatics - not in Seville, not in San Sebastian, not in Barcelona, not in Burgos, not in Madrid. But in London, a Spanish restaurant can more or less make itself up as it goes along.

So why not, as Albero and Grana does, invoke Lorca and Papa Hemingway? This should strike chords. The last good Spanish restaurant in London, Guernica on Foley Street, may well have died from its own subtlety. It was most ladylike, with pink linen, black chairs and muted Basque cookery.

Albero and Grana also cleverly avoids the label of tapas bar. It has a bar, which serves tapas, but is not to be confused with the places that boomed in the Eighties and appeared to specialise in hot-plated meatballs and tinned artichoke hearts.

Back to the big red dining room with the sand in the ashtrays. It would not be amiss to wear a beret and gnaw at a great hunk of blood-rare beef, served only with its running juices, gratineed potatoes and red wine. This is what I have seen authentic Spanish people do in a carne (meat) restaurant in San Sebastian. And, if there is a real Spanish restaurant waiting to get out of Albero and Grana, it is probably a carne one.

Certainly the most tempting articles on the menu were meat or offal: duck foie gras with pickled vegetables, best end of lamb with garlic sauce, char-grilled beef with red pepper butter, lasagne of black pudding with green pepper sauce. This leads to confession number two: my chief stupidity was not that I tasted the ashtray, but that I took along a vegetarian companion.

She began with that expensive pink vegetable, wild salmon. Not only was the vegetarian eating fish, but the Spanish restaurant was serving her Italian food: carpaccio of salmon with olive oil and warm ciabatta. Moreover, in a straight play for English affection, it was serving sweet butter with the ciabatta.

I began with the duck liver, strangely described as 'escabeche of duck liver'. In fact, it proved to be a conventional pate, though better than most. It was dense and rich, but would have tasted better at room temperature rather than as a cold slab. It was the accompanying vegetables - leeks, onions, carrot, courgettes - that had been escabeched (or blanched and pickled), and were served in a robust dressing.

Then, inadvertently, we had the same dish. The vegetarian Catalonian fish stew was identical to my grilled fish and shellfish, except that it came with sauce. Both were fine, as was the garlic, almond and tomato mayonnaise that accompanied the grill.

Puddings were excellent. Arroz con leche caramelizado is a rice pudding spread over a big grey plate. But its top has a hard, delicious brulee finish. I wonder, however, if the sweet babyfood and thick, marble-effect plate might have benefited from being hot. The fruit of a pear tart on puff pastry was also deftly caramelised. A lemon and sweet tomato tart sounded delicious.

The service charge is built in, but oddly here at 9 per cent, whereas the British norm ranges from 10 to 12.5 per cent and the American is 15 per cent.

The wine list was disappointing and strangely expensive. But it is early days: Albero and Grana has time to list a lot more than the six reds under the pounds 22 mark. A 1985 Cerro Anon Reserva was a perfectly good Rioja, but would have tasted better had it cost pounds 11 rather than pounds 18.50.

What little else of Spanish London I know consists of places run by the Spanish for the Spanish, such as the no-nonsense Galicia in north Kensington. The delicatessen, R Garcia and Son, on Portobello Road sells Ducados cigarettes, and is excellent for olives, large tins of Carbonnel olive oil, manchego, chorizo, Serrano ham, pork belly and barding fat. And, last time I checked, hotel workers were still congregating in Sevilla Mia, a tiny bar at 22 Hanway Street, W1 (071-637 3756) where a guitarist strums wildly and they sing and snap and roar and make gringos like me feel like gringos like me.

Albero and Grana, Chelsea Cloisters, 89 Sloane Avenue, London SW3 (071-225 1048). Children welcome. Tapas bar meals from pounds 5- pounds 20. Three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT in restaurant, pounds 30- pounds 40. Mon-Sat evenings: tapas bar open 6pm-1am, restaurant 7pm- 10.30pm (last orders). Sat-Sun daytime: tapas bar open 12noon- 4pm. Major credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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