Rioja of ages

You'll have to squeeze in, but Cigala proves that Spanish regional cooking is a match for its more pretentious rivals
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I hate posh restaurants, I really do. I once went to a place in France with two Michelin stars and loathed every pretentious minute of it. Apart from the fussy table decorations and over-attentive service (I'll pour my own wine, thank you very much), the food was so preposterously over-arranged as to be rendered almost inedible. We left feeling miserable and hungry, having agreed that the recommendations in the famous guide must intended only for old people and rich Americans.

I hate posh restaurants, I really do. I once went to a place in France with two Michelin stars and loathed every pretentious minute of it. Apart from the fussy table decorations and over-attentive service (I'll pour my own wine, thank you very much), the food was so preposterously over-arranged as to be rendered almost inedible. We left feeling miserable and hungry, having agreed that the recommendations in the famous guide must intended only for old people and rich Americans.

It's not that I don't have taste. In fact I think I may have been blessed with the natural judgement of a true gourmet. And one of the great advantages of this gift is that I don't need guides to tell me when food is good. I can (and I know this may come as a shock in this information-obsessed age) decide for myself. This means I can find delicious sustenance in the most unlikely places, including my local kebab shop (the best grilled chicken I have ever eaten) and at the Thai café round the corner (you have to bring your own bottle, collect a menu from the counter, and light your own candle).

At first sight, Cigala appears to be my kind of restaurant. There is no indication on its unpretentious façade that it is for smart people or that it has been designed in any knowing way. Lamb's Conduit Street is like the road that time forgot (tall Georgian houses obscured by 1950s shop fronts), and on a rainy winter evening Cigala's large plate glass windows and brightly lit interior make it stand out like that bar in the famous Edward Hopper painting, only busier.

Inside, it's a bit of a squeeze, but the fact that the place is full makes you feel privileged to have a seat at all. I went with three friends and we arranged our coats, bags and wet umbrellas around us on the floor. Michelin judges would have been appalled by the resulting chaos, but I felt immediately at home.

Cigala is that rare thing in Britain: a modern Spanish restaurant. Now, I may know good cooking when I taste it, but the intricacies of the regional wine and food of Spain are not my speciality. Luckily Claire is an expert on such things, and so she checked out the impressive seven-page wine list (including many sherries and cavas) while the rest of us deciphered the menu. This turns out to be user friendly, as the daily-changing starters and main courses are listed in Spanish with a description in English.

The waiter seemed irritated by our indecision and high spirits and a little unsure about what some of the dishes contained. It didn't matter - both waiters looked authentic in dirty white aprons and were handsome, which nearly always makes up for shaky service.

My pincho moruno, a small kebab of grilled pork, was juicy and very salty, which is the way I like it. The mixed salad comes with fresh capers and was declared excellent by Caroline and, although Claire said the escalivada (grilled vegetable salad) was the untidiest she'd ever seen, she admitted it was extremely good.

We chose a bottle of cava to start (Reaventos i Blanc, Sant Sandurni d'Anoia) which was as dry and delicious as any of its sparkling French cousins, and moved on to a red made with Tempranillo, the native black grape of La Rioja (Valdepenas gran reserva, Pata Negra 91). The long list of wines made with this grape is certainly impressive.

My main course of cocido Madrileno, a mix of poached meats with chickpeas and cabbage, was quite an event. A large piece of tender pork, breast of chicken and two sausages - one black - cooked in a fine tasting broth. It is the kind of nursery food that I adore. Claire had a grilled gilthead bream, a sharp-toothed looking fish, part of which literally glittered gold. Caroline chose grilled turbot with a pepper salad. They were united in their admiration for the flavour of the fish, though I found the presentation (on large oblong white plates) poncy and out of character with the rest of the place.

For pudding, Mark had a flavourless yoghurt sorbet which was livened up by Malaga raisins and sherry. I expected my sherry trifle to be saturated in alcohol, but unfortunately it was mostly cream with some token sponges lost at the bottom. Never mind, it looked about as homely and anti-haute cuisine as you can get.

So Cigala passes the not-posh test, and we had a satisfying meal for four, three bottles of wine and an education in Spanish regional cooking for £150. It's not as cheap as my kebab shop, but definitely worthy of a return visit. I just hope those nasty Michelin people never get near it. *

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