Once, there were four decent Spanish restaurants in London. I know this because I used to judge the London Restaurant Awards, a televised black-tie event at which blinged-up newsreaders handed out gongs, while an increasingly unruly audience of restaurateurs and chefs got resentfully smashed. It was basically a kettling operation, with champagne and canapés.
One category – Best Spanish Restaurant – would always leave us judges scratching our heads. Every year, we'd draw up a shortlist of the same four names. The category had to stay, we were told, because the event's sponsor was a Spanish sherry exporter.
There'd be no problem now. You could fill a hotel ballroom with the staff of London's superb Spanish restaurants, and three new tapas joints would have sprung up by the time they'd scrambled out. Like the small plates which pour from their open kitchens, these new-generation tapas bars have a tendency to proliferate. Barrafina, Brindisa, Salt Yard, Barrica, Iberica – all of them breeding like conejos, while keeping the quality control admirably high.
The latest to go forth and multiply is Donostia, a terrific little place just north of Marble Arch, which draws inspiration from the food capital of the Basque Country – if not Europe – San Sebastian. Like Donostia, Lurra, newly opened just over the road, is a restaurant with its feet in Portland Village and its heart in the Basque Country.
This time, the Donostia team – owners Melody Adams and Nemanja Borjanovic, plus head chef Damian Surowiec – have looked to the region's traditional charcoal and wood grills for inspiration. Lurra means "land" – something of an anachronism, with the nearest green space being Bryanston Square. But then this is a very sophisticated urban take on the messy, earthy business of cooking over white-hot embers.
Where Donostia is canteen-like, Lurra – also designed by co-owner Adams – is a place to linger. A tiny entrance area holding a few tables opens into an airy, glowing lightbox of a room, with one glass wall overlooking a courtyard dining space. As at Donostia, there's an open kitchen with counter seating. There's also – hoorah – space, and marble tables, and sturdy chairs, and it's comfortable and well lit, and you can book (just saying.)
In the interests of giving the menu a proper shakedown, we focus on the smaller dishes, rather than the star attractions: large sharing plates of aged Galician beef, and whole grilled turbot, which as co-owner Borjanovic explains, is "slow-cooked in white wine, so the skin isn't crisp, it's gelatinous". Maybe that pitch needs some work.
Small plates hit the table almost as soon as we've ordered. Prawn croquetas, wafer-crisp panko-crusted parcels of bisque-heavy bechamel loaded with tiny, sweet shrimp. Then an elegant tempura-battered courgette flower filled with silken cod brandade. Striped from the charcoal grill, a horn of squid holds a smoky-sweet dice of chorizo and prawn, anchored by a lick of squid-ink sauce. Baby vegetables, oozing and crackling from the application of fierce heat, taste of smoke but also cleanly and distinctly of themselves.
Monkfish tail comes bone-in, the springy, saffron-stippled flesh falling away easily, to be swished through a swoony moscatel and garlic sauce, depth-charged with shaved garlic. New to me is solomillo, Iberico pork tenderloin served rare, leaving each mellow, earthy slice blush-pink inside a salty crust: fantastic with a quiver of paprika-dusted fries.
The dessert list is rudimentary – a few Basque cheeses, some ices, and a lightly set ewe's milk yoghurt, which is discreetly removed from the bill when our lack of enthusiasm is noted. Typically intuitive service from a team led from the front by the co-owners, a Kooples poster come to life.
As if designing and running two restaurants wasn't enough, they're also responsible for importing the wines, and, through another side business, for introducing London's high-end restaurants to this year's fetish dish, beef from those venerable Galician cows. A fine specimen of that much-prized, huge-tasting steak is the star offering here, 14-year-old Rubia Gallega rib-eye, cooked low and slow over charcoal. It's already more popular than Kim Kardashian on Instagram. But with the smallest cut coming in at 800g, it would have been a Desperate Dan-style challenge for me to tackle as the sole meat eater (not to mention a challenge to clear on expenses, though at £65 a kilo, it's not outlandishly priced).
So Lurra's must-have dish must wait for my next visit. And that won't be long. I've already booked to return soon with my most carnivorous friends. Forget awards and judging ceremonies. When a restaurant can persuade a critic to go back within a week and spend their own money, it's definitely a winner.
Lurra, 9 Seymour Place, London W1 (020 7724 4545). Around £30 a head, before wine and serviceReuse content