You've done the jasmine-smoked chicken at Hakkasan and the mushroom-dusted snail balls at Neat. You were at the Cinnamon Club within seconds of it opening, and now you're just counting the meals until Peter Gordon opens his new Providores restaurant in Marylebone. You're so cutting edge you're dangerous to be around. So why do you still feel something's missing from your life? Because you're an Irregular, that's why.
Irregulars flit from one bright, scented flower to the next like butterflies, reliant on the kindness of others. Regulars, on the other hand, are larvae, curling up in one place and creating their own silky cocoons with commitment and consistency.
We all need that sense of belonging and well-being that comes with being recognised and cared for, but you won't find it in your latest high-priced truffle den. It's not what they do. Nobody is going to give a stuff about you unless you live in their neighbourhood and come back so often you're boring. Then you'll get a house wine that won't grab you by the throat, a pat on the shoulder, and a plate of exactly what you want to eat.
It's just another night at Galicia, Portobello Road's long-serving Spanish, and the front tapas bar is lined with regulars. Another one arrives, and is hand-shaken, shoulder-patted and virtually carried to the table next to mine like the Queen Mum. A bottle of the Rioja red house wine appears within minutes. He runs through the menu to his companion, a first-timer, but tells him what to eat: octopus and Galician-style hake. After coming here for 13 years, he says, he knows what's good.
Galicia (the region) is a rugged coastal corner of north-west Spain famous for its sea-food, especially shellfish, crustaceans, octopus, sardines and hake. So why are most of the clientele tucking into nicely grilled steaks and chops? Because they can get what they want here, the way that they want it.
My motto, however, is "when in Galicia... ". After a little unsolicited appetiser of warm strips of eggy tortilla and fleshy olives, the table is soon covered with small plates of seafood. Mejellones a la marinera (£4.25) are good young black mussels bathed in a meaty sauce that soaks up the wimpy bread. A platter of four grilled sardines (£4) is flapping flesh and allowed to shine with-out embellishment. Also good is pulpo, or octopus, (£5.50) done in the feria or festive style – cooked, sliced, olive oiled and dusted with smoky paprika. This is octopus that has seen the insides of a cement mixer or two – it's as soft as butter, almost too soft, in fact.
In the meantime, The Regular is tucking into a plate of small marinated anchovies. " Boquerones," he says, feeling my eyes upon his food. "But they're not on the menu," I say. "Oh really?" he says. Regulars know that there is a separate tapas list as well as the fish and steak menu. Irregulars don't.
The restaurant sits borderline between the genteel residences of Notting Hill and the gritty urban reality of Golborne Road. Spanish families and local shop-owners mix with bare-midriffed, Kosovo- kerchiefed, high-heeled, long-haired English girls and their studiously raffish boyfriends. The tapas bar at the front ebbs and flows all night, tables fill and refill, and a bunch of cheery waiters ferry platters of food to the hungry. It's a basic sort of place, with two snug and cosy dining-rooms of yellowing walls, tiled floors and ceiling fans. There's a lone bottle of ketchup next to the bottles of olive oil and vinegar – no doubt for a Regular – and a short, all-Spanish wine list with a handful of Galician whites.
The kitchen moves fast, and there is no enormous wait for a seafood paella (£18.50 for two). There's a great whack of flavour in the golden rice, which almost sizzles in its cast-iron pan. It is a real treat. It is a similar story with the merluza a la Gallega (£9.75), thick cutlets of hake cooked with potatoes, garlic and a full-bodied stock. The fish is firm and meaty, but the spuds are wonderfully tender, deep-flavoured, and satiny with oil and stock.
An over-baked crème caramel-like flan (£2.50) is so forgettable I've forgotten it, but the tetilla (£2.50) – a mild, semi-soft Galician cow's milk cheese shaped like a teat – served with membrillo quince paste is an honest way to finish.
And that's the thing about Galicia; it's just a great old honest, good value, hardworking neighbourhood Spanish – probably the best of its kind, because it has a very good chef, buys fresh seafood, and looks after its customers. In a city, where the top restaurants are staffed with haute French waiters, and the prices don't encourage habitués, it's more important than ever to find a place you want to keep coming back to for the next 13 years.
This one's mine. Go find your own. *
Second helpings... More restaurants serving Spain on a plate.
Gaudi 63 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, tel: 020 7608 3220 The quirky Gaudi-inspired décor may be unnerving, but the food goes beyond day-tripper tapas and postcard paella. Chef Nacho Martinez's bright individual take on the Iberian way produces some good balanced dishes of seafood-filled empanadas, jumbo prawns with arroz negro (black rice), roast turbot with steamed mussels and pork with roasted peppers, although he can get a bit carried away with fruity bits on occasion.
Moro 34-36 Exmouth Market, London EC1, tel: 020 7833 8336 Samuel and Samantha Clark now have a London eating landmark on their hands, along with the mandatory (and very beautiful) cookbook. It's one of those rare places that are immediately familiar and comfortable. Their food is all-embracingly Moorish (Spain and north Africa, with a little Portugal thrown in) from grilled squid with harissa, to wood-roasted belly pork with quince aioli.
Cigala 54 Lamb's Conduit Street, London WC1, tel: 020 7405 1717 As a chef, Jake Hodges has real street cred, having cooked his way through the Italian, Spanish and north African repertoires of The River Café and Moro. Now he's taken a strictly Spanish route in this hugely popular, newish Holborn eatery. Food runs from cigala a la plancha (grilled langoustines) served with a punchy romesco sauce, to a rustic rabbit with thyme, lemon and garlic.Reuse content