Bar Esteban, restaurant review: It's Brooklyn meets Barcelona in north London
Amol Rajan was appointed editor of The Independent in June 2013. He was previously Editor of Independent Voices, a comment, campaigns and community platform across print and digital. He was earlier Deputy Comment Editor, Sports News Correspondent and a news reporter. He writes a restaurant column for the Independent on Sunday, and has a column in the Evening Standard (Mondays), Independent and i (Fridays). He used to work on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff, and at the Foreign Office; he is also a trustee of Prospex, a charity for young people in Islington. He has written a book called Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers.
Sunday 16 February 2014
On first impressions, and aside from the alliteration, there isn't much to unite Barcelona and Brooklyn. In fact, plenty separates them, not least the Atlantic. Barcelona: Gaudi, cava, Sonar festival, the Nou Camp. Brooklyn: brownstones in Fort Greene and Park Slope, a young Beckham, rye whisky, the notorious bridge. Then again, Hispanics and Latinos make up a fifth – and growing – portion of Brooklyn's population, albeit not many of them speak Catalan.
Bar Esteban in London's Crouch End tries to have it both ways. The website says this place: "blends the warmth and energy of Barcelona with edgy Brooklyn cool". On a freezing, drenched Saturday afternoon in winter, the warmth of Barcelona will suffice, and frankly I can't see much of Brooklyn in the menu, décor or staff. In fact, our friend Ella, with whom we're having lunch, is the most Brooklyn thing about the place. And she's from Washington.
Owners Stephen Lironi and Lisa Woolley loved their trips with their respective partners to New York and Spain so much that they decided to recreate those holiday vibes in Haringey. A noble ambition. And once you judge this place on its own, largely Catalan, merits, it does rather well. True to Barcelona form, it's empty at 1pm, and packed at 2.30pm, so book accordingly.
Having turned up early, wet and starving, I order and quickly wolf down a large plate of the Iberico ham. This has that wonderfully intense and greasy flavour I hope for, but at £14 is too dear by a few quid at least. From the "pica pica" – appetisers – two different types of croquette, salt-cod and jamon, are both warm and well seasoned, but as nothing compared with a stunning dish called sobrassada. If you have a passing interest in pig, and no concerns about cholesterol, it's a steal at £5.50. It is basically cured sausage spiced with paprika, cooked in a hot earthenware dish with lashings of honey – about as good a sweet-and-sour combination as you'll find this side of Las Ramblas. You can also get good boquerones (£5) – acidic, marinated anchovies – and staples such as salted almonds (£2.50), crispy chickpeas (£3), tortilla (£3.50) and warm, fluffy bread with aioli (£2.50).
The bulk of the menu is split into vegetables, fish and seafood, and meat options, with seven, three and four selections respectively. Though some of the vegetables selection does have meat to accompany it, a vegetarian could eat here comfortably, leaving with spare change in their pocket, a full belly and a satisfied palate. That is more than can be said for most tapas restaurants in London.
The pisto (aubergine, courgette and peppers, £4.50) and coca de escalivada (flatbread with roasted peppers, onion and aubergine, £5.50) are both very good; but if you're the kind of person horrified by the sight of a small dish almost drowning in oil, steer clear.
The fried baby squid (£7) have a pretty light batter, and the pulpo a la gallega, which is octopus, potato and paprika (£8.50) doesn't benefit much from the starchy interjection of potato. Chorizo chunks (£6) are perfectly serviceable but a bit boring coming so soon after their honey-glazed cousins among the pica pica, and the albondigas con salsa espanola – meatballs, in short – are tender, juicy and coated in a herbalicious tomato sauce.
But possibly the best reason to go to this neighbourhood restaurant, even if it's not in your neighbourhood, is the sherry. I remember years and years ago (OK, three-and-a-half years ago), when in one of my first entries on this page I visited the excellent Cambio de Tercio in posh Brompton Road, I thought that sherry could really take off in London. Well, it's beginning to. Here, you can get sumptuous manzanilla or Fernando de Castilla for £4. It's strong, sweet, syrupy, and fantastic value, particularly when sipped after an excellent £9 cheese plate (highlight: manchego) or chocolate tart with vanilla ice-cream (£6).
It's a tasty end to a memorable meal. More Barcelona than Brooklyn, Bar Esteban tastes of sunshine and fun in a winter lacking both. If you can't afford the flight to Spain, get yourself to Crouch End instead, for some sherry and sobrassada at least.
Bar Esteban, 29 Park Road, London N8, tel: 020 8340 3090. £60 for two, with wine
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