Barrafina, London W1
Terry Durack goes out for tapas, and comes face to face with his dark side
Sunday 11 February 2007
I have just seen my dark side, and I can't say I like it. Gross impatience, extreme petulance, blatant envy, hard-core dummy-spitting, and evil thoughts towards my fellow man: it appears that I am not very nice after all.
For I have been queuing for dinner at Barrafina, the new Soho tapas bar from Fino's Sam and Eddie Hart, which takes no reservations. Well, of course it doesn't take reservations. It's a tapas bar. Do the maths: one broad, L-shaped tapas bar, 23 comfortable stools, and four glowing reviews (and counting). Of course there are going to be queues.
So I get there in plenty of time, at 6.30pm on a Friday. Eeek. Every seat is taken, and there are already a dozen people queued up along the wall.
After 20 minutes, the queue has not moved, but I am fine, chatting about the day, sipping a cold Cruzcampo beer. After 40 minutes, the queue still hasn't moved and I am getting twitchy. My conversation dries up. My Cruzcampo is gone. There are still a dozen people in front of me.
An hour in, and I don't want to talk any more. I don't want another drink. My eyes have gone all funny and I feel light-headed. I want something to eat. I want a seat. I stare daggers at the couple immediately in front of me, silently willing them to leave. I shoot invisible rays of malevolence into the back of their skulls every time they order more food or another glass of sherry. I analyse each diner, each relationship, each order, looking for a potential sign of movement. They are all acting as if they will be here all bloody night, especially those three couples at the end of the bar. Oh my God, they're not three couples, they're a group of six! From an office! You can't have an office party at a tapas bar, you blithering idiots. Two of them aren't even eating any more, they're just sitting there. I make moaning sounds.
At 8.05pm, one hour and 35 minutes after I arrived, I finally sit down. So the big question is this: is Barrafina worth the wait?
Modelled on the famous Cal Pep of Barcelona, it is certainly the closest London has come to emulating that seductive mix that is a great tapas bar experience: of seriously good produce, simple, honest cooking and a loud and casual atmosphere.
All stainless steel, marble and mirrors, it is a stage set full of life and movement. In front of me, a fast-moving waiter called Fabien pours cava and darts back and forth, as white-hatted chef Nieves Barragan flits about, turning prawns and sardines on the plancha (flat grill), and unmoulding perfect little tortillas from miniature pans. Others carve jamon from a huge leg of Jabugo and fry batches of potato for patatas bravas in slim deep-fryers. On a slurry of ice, sits the seafood of the day - long, handsome razor clams, silvery sardines, tiny almejas (palourde clams), glossy white squid, jet-black mussels, and two types of prawns.
So what's good? Most of it. The tortilla, especially the classic egg-and-potato number (£4), is a minor miracle, crisp outside and lightly runny inside. Clams (£6.50), simply opened on the grill, are fresh, sweet and awash in their own juices, while a glistening ball of ruby-red tuna tartare (£7.50), served with a splodge of avocado purée, is light, delicate and clean-tasting.
The same kitchen expedience seems to capture the sizzle and character of the meatier options far more than refined technique. Dark, crumbly, black-hearted morcilla blood sausage (£5.50) is squished on to flame-red piquillo peppers, while ruthlessly trimmed lamb cutlets (£6.50) and two lightly scorched grilled quail (£5.80), are sensitively cooked and served without fuss.
Servings are small and measured, as you would expect, but prices are higher than you would hope. Four tiny sardines for £6.50, and a skimpy platter of cured meats for £10.50 push the bill up fast. The wine list, on the other hand, is brilliant - short and sensible - with both white and red wines stored at specific temperatures in a bank of refrigerated cabinets.
A lightly oaked, vaguely citrussy Martius 1995 white garnacha (£17.50) can't help but be seafood-friendly, and the semi-sweet Hidalgo Oloroso Abocado sherry (£3.50) makes the most of a superbly rich, crumbly frangipane-style Santiago almond tart (£4) and a flawless crema catalana (£4) with a crisp toffee top.
Eddie and Sam Hart take turns at running Barrafina, but they are way too nice for the job. What's needed here is a tough asshole of a restaurateur - one who knows the only way to make money is to keep those seats ticking over with a series of rules: no groups of more than four, an hour and a half max, no late add-ons, and no sitting forever on a single glass of fragrant Oloroso at the end of the meal, no matter how much you may be enjoying it.
Besides, I can feel a funny prickling sensation. It's getting stronger, as if something is boring into the back of my skull. Time to head off, then.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Barrafina, 54 Frith Street, London W1, tel: 020 7813 8016
Open from noon to midnight, Monday to Saturday.
Around £90 for two including wine and service
Second helpings: More no-booking restaurants
Milsoms, Stratford Road, Dedham, Essex, tel: 01206 322 795
It's a surprise to find such a lively, upbeat bar and brasserie in such a sedate Victorian country house. Crowd-pleasers run from Malay chicken satay to good old shepherd's pie.
Hendersons, 94 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 2131
Salad bar, wine bar and bistro, this 45-year-old Edinburgh institution serves up super veggie fare, from Greek spanakopita to Italian antipasti.
Busaba Eathai, 106-110 Wardour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7255 8686
There is always a queue at Alan Yau's stylish Thai communal diner, but at least it moves, so you won't have to wait too long for your Pad Thai and Mussaman duck curry.
Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at firstname.lastname@example.org
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