From Spain and mainly not plain

Traditionally, the suggestion of Spanish food conjurs up sombrero-sized dishes of steaming paella and spicy sausages. But there's a corner of London where your expectations will be confounded
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Ay caramba! El Rincón has only been open a few weeks, but it's already creating quite a stir among food writers. Particularly so for a restaurant specialising in the food of Spain, a country most Brits have visited, and yet which for many has no clear culinary identity beyond paella, tapas and - for the Ibiza posse - plenty of water and some chewing gum.

Ay caramba! El Rincón has only been open a few weeks, but it's already creating quite a stir among food writers. Particularly so for a restaurant specialising in the food of Spain, a country most Brits have visited, and yet which for many has no clear culinary identity beyond paella, tapas and - for the Ibiza posse - plenty of water and some chewing gum.

I asked comedian Alexei Sayle to accompany me to El Rincón because he owns a house in southern Spain and has recently published a book of short stories called Barcelona Plates which makes him the nearest thing I know to an expert on the country's cuisine.

"If we want to be really Spanish, we should eat at 10.30pm," Alexei said, when we were making the arrangements. Which proved to be almost prophetic; the only tables available when I first called El Rincón were at 6.30 or 10.30, and some special pleading was needed to squeeze into prime-time.

El Rincón (it translates as "the corner") is already busy because owners Claudio Pulze and Raj Sharma have won many friends with their existing restaurants, which include the Indian Zaika, and Italians Al Duca - mid-market (and excellent) - and Il Forno in Soho.

On a gridlocked, rain-lashed London night, the golden earth tones and welcoming atmosphere of El Rincón acted on the senses like a beaker full of the warm south. It's a basement, but as basements go, not a particularly depressing one, thanks to clever lighting which gives the room an Amontillado glow. Efficient, modern decor and a largely international clientele evoke the Spain of Terry Wogan and golf-course hotels rather than anything peasant-like or rustic.

Alexei was waiting for me in the bar, looking as elegant as is possible when perched on a leather cube toying with a tiny glass of sherry.

There are 10 sherries listed at El Rincón, and I tried a sip of his Pedro Ximenez, Cardenal Cisneros before making my own selection. It was sweet and thick, with an undertow reminiscent of Owbridges cough mixture. "I only chose it because of the name," bleated Alexei, his expert credentials already starting to crumble.

El Rincón's menu serves as the perfect antidote for anyone suffering from restaurant fatigue. It's very different. Earthy combinations - a terrine of chicken, chorizo and black pudding wrapped in cabbage - appear alongside daintier dishes like ravioli of hake in a clam and parsley broth.

Very little is familiar, and even the recognisable items acquire racy Spanish names - the tapas selection becomes "plato mixto de Picar-Picar". Chef Anton Escalera's CV includes stints with the Rothschild family at Midsummer House in Cambridge, and he seems to have allowed himself some freedom, rather than sticking too closely to Spanish fundamentals.

We began with a complimentary helping of melon soup, which condensed the fugitively delicious taste of melon into an intense aromatic hit. Shreds of ham swam in the tiny cup, and the result was so gorgeous that I was tempted to do a Homer Simpson and pour it down the back of my throat while gurgling loudly.

Alexei then chose the tapas selection, even though, as he pointed out repeatedly, tapas come free with your drink in Spanish bars. This was rather an upmarket selection, comprising a taster of vivid gazpacho, baby squid on ink-coated white beans, a crisp ham croquette and gambas in a light tempura batter. "Ah, tempura prawn, that famously Spanish dish," mused Alexei. He approved of all of it, though he found the soup a little rarefied. "I'm used to a much cruder gazpacho than this," he explained airily.

My starter was selected on the basis that it contained two ingredients I'd normally cross the street to avoid, snails and frogs legs. My reasoning was that if Chef Escalera could persuade me to enjoy them, he could do anything with me.

And he could - it was outstanding. A parcel of dark cabbage leaves unwrapped to reveal a musky dice of bacon, onion, carrots and plump, black snails. A phalanx of frogs' legs, trousered in bacon, stood guard around the parcel, the spindly shin-bones serving as handles to grip them with, like a canapé which has thoughtfully provided its own cocktail stick. A garlicky cream sauce and toasted pine nuts finished off an exceptional dish.

Alexei translated his main course - Cochinillo lechal a la Segoviana - as "the milky pig of Segovia", which didn't sound quite so tempting. In fact, it is suckling pig, slow-roasted and basted with lemon and herbs. The pigs, we were informed, are flown in from Salamanca once a week. "Do you think they come on easyJet?" mused Alexei.

Sizzling in a big earthenware bowl, the dish made a real show-stopping entrance. The pig's skin was the colour of varnished caramel, and pliable and waxy rather than crisp like crackling. Inside, the meat was so soft you could have eaten it with a spoon. It needed little accompaniment, apart from a sharp reduction of the basting juices and some slices of chargrilled potato.

My dish looked dramatic - few chefs can resist the ebony and ivory contrast of squid served with its own ink. In this case each pearly torpedo of baby squid was drizzled with ink and stuffed with a paste of minced prawn. The result tasted blander than it looked, and the portion was on the dainty side - half-raciones, as it were. But arroz cremoso - a creamier kind of risotto - was a triumph. Anyone ordering it should, however, beware; it left me with one finger and a portion of my upper lip dyed deep black by splashes of squid ink, as though I'd serviced a photocopier before coming out.

Puddings seemed more Gallic than Iberian. A big brandy snap was filled with summer fruits and honey ice cream, and an apple-tart featured a whipped custard centrepiece and a heavy dusting of cinnamon - blissful, as long as you love that spice. "Cinnamon Paradiso," I breathed, breaking the time-honoured rule about never trying to make jokes to a comedian.

Still, Alexei's appetite for laughter is as prodigious as his appetite for good food. "I'm starting to get that queasy feeling like I've eaten too much, which is very typical of Spain," he groaned.

For those with lighter appetites, there's a tapas menu served in the bar, but eating in the restaurant won't break the bank - three courses cost a flat £22.50.

You may well be able to fly to Spain on easyJet for less, but you'll be very lucky to stumble across this good a restaurant while you're there.

El Rincón, 2a Pond Place, London SW3 020-7584 6655 Mon-Sat dinner 6-11pm. Limited disabled access. All credit cards.

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