Something is missing. I can feel it the minute I walk in the door of Pinchito, the new pinchos bar from the team behind Brighton's award-winning Pinxto People. There are no pinchos, or pinxtos, the bite-size snacky things on bread that are the Basque form of tapas. Not a one, not even a little pinchito.
The long, slim cabinet sitting on the bar is bare. The bar itself is bare. Someone has eaten all the pinchos and it's not yet eight o' clock on a Wednesday night. Waaaah! I WANT PINCHOS.
For the past week, I have been wandering from bar to bar in San Sebastiá*'s old quarter, where pinchos are both an art form and a way of life. I can now hold forth on whether Bar Goiz Argi's brochetta of prawns is superior to Bar Ganbara's limpid salt cod tucked into toasty baby croissants or to Bar Sport's pincho of chorizo, quail egg and jamon. I am what is known as a pinchos bore.
But that doesn't help me. At the bar, a large mob of noisy, suited city boys gather around their computer cases and knapsacks as if tethered. According to my waitress, this single group demolished the entire supply of bar food like a swarm of locusts. "What can you do?" she shrugged.
I'll tell you what you can do. You can make more. Pizza Express doesn't run out of pizzas. Gourmet Burger Kitchen never runs out of burgers. You're a pinchos bar without any pinchos on the bar. In San Sebastiá*, reinforcements would already be streaming out from the kitchen. But this is Shoreditch and nothing much happens.
So I put in an order from a tapas menu that lists quite a few raciones (small plates) among the patatas bravas, croquettas, marinated anchovies, tortilla, cured meats and cheese platters. It's all fairly straight-up bar fodder – surprisingly traditional compared with its Brighton sibling and its brave new modern Spanish cooking and sophisticated dining room.
There seems to be more inspiration on the drinks list, with creative sangrias by the jug, a good range of sherry including a pungent, slightly musty Gonzalez Byass AB Vina Amontillado Fino (£5), and pretty pink aperitifs such as the Valentino of Cava, Bombay Sapphire and strawberry (£6.50). "Inspired by the British summer" says the menu. So, short and wet, then. There's also a good selection from across Spain under £40, and lots by the glass.
A platter of mixed meats (£6) are little wisps of pork loin, chorizo and salami, sliced so finely that even when I pile three slices on to a piece of bread, I still can't taste much. Pan tumaca (toasted bread rubbed with tomato (£2), is spoilt by insubstantial bread, the juicy tomato turning it into collapsing slush. A little dish of squid and chickpeas (£4) is better, with big, fat, nutty chickpeas, but I search to find more than one piece of squid.
The room is designed around a central bar and kitchen, with a take-it-or-leave-it, bare-boarded, industrial fit-out and a feature wall of small framed photographs. It's really, really loud and as the local office crowd gets a few Cruzcampo beers down after work, it gets louder.
A chorizo and mango tortilla (£4) is solid and bland, albondigas meatballs (£5) are on the dry side, but swimming in a lush tomato sauce, and an escalivada of roasted vegetables (£4) feels oily and slushy. Probably the best dish is the boquerones (£4), fat, feisty, vinegary anchovies served on fresh potato crisps.
I feel let down, because I really liked Pintxo People and was hoping for more of the same happy mix of a relaxed atmosphere and serious food.
Pinchito may well get its act together, but I'm not sure that the City boys and girls will care much one way or the other. It's my fault then, for comparing Pinchito with the pinchos bars of northern Spain, or even the pinchos bars of Brighton, when I should only be comparing it with the drinking bars of Shoreditch. Sorry.
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
Pinchito Tapas, 322 Featherstone Street, London EC1. Tel: 020 7490 0121. Mon-Fri 8am-midnight. Sat: 5pm-midnight. Around £65 for two people, including drinks and service
Second helpings: more tapas
54 Frith Street, London W1, tel: 020 7813 8016
Sam and Eddie Hart have modelled Britain's best tapas bar after Barcelona's iconic Cal Pep. Diners sit on stools watching the chefs whizz up divine tortillas, garlicky razor clams and grilled quail.
113 Alcester Road, Moseley Village, Birmingham, tel: 0121 449 5430
Where did Birmingham's tapas lovers go before this popular, friendly bar opened in 2005?
3A Baddow Road, Chelmsford, Essex, tel: 01245 268268
This long-standing tapas restaurant moved to Chelmsford town centre last year, along with its pan-fried sardines and sizzled chorizo.Reuse content