I've given up predicting that tapas is going to be The Next Big Thing. You must be relieved. I started when Sam and Sam Clark opened Moro back in 1997, convinced that this was the start of a sweeping Spanish/tapas movement in London. Instead, it was just the start of a very good Moorish restaurant.
I swore it to be true in 2001, when the influential restaurateurs Claudio Pulze and Raj Sharma opened El Rincon, but I stopped when it closed six months later. "It's a phenomenon," I cried in 2003 when the Hart brothers opened Fino, their refined Spanish tapas bar on London's Charlotte Street. And I was right. Just a bit early.
Now look: even Sir Terence Conran has started tapas dancing on Wardour Street, where his just-opened Meza tapas bar shares a new Latin Quarter with the wonderfully retro Floridita Cuban bar, club and restaurant. At the other end of the scale, my favourite Portobello Road food store, R Garcia & Sons, is busy tarting up next door and launching a bright, modern tapas bar in two weeks.
But the clincher comes from Borough Market way in south-east London, where Spanish food specialist, Brindisa, has just opened its own tapas bar. It is a logical step for Monika Linton, who has been importing some of the finest names in Spanish produce, including Joselito ham, Ortiz anchovies, El Navarrico beans, Forum wine vinegars and Dauro oils, since 1988.
Located in a former potato warehouse, divided into a bar area with high tables and a proper, sit-down café, Tapas Brindisa is a curious combination of the basic and the designer-led. Floors are poured concrete, tables are bare, and placemats are paper menus, while the wooden banquette is a lovely sculpture in two-toned wood, and the open kitchen gleams with stainless steel and serious intent.
Chef Jose Manuel Pizarro, ex-Eyre Brothers and Gaudi, has created a no-fuss menu running from charcuterie and cheese platters to "fine food from a tin" (anchovies, asparagus, peppers), a range of hot egg dishes, montaditos (stuff on sliced baguette), mixed plates and so on.
Things kick off with a bowl of insanely moreish, crisp paprika-toasted broad beans (£1), putting an end to my three-year addiction to roasted pistachios, and shoving it right up Japanese edamame.
Hot on its heels comes pan tostado con tomate (£1.50), thick country bread scorched on a grill, rubbed with garlic and olive oil, then squished with fresh tomato. It's the perfect partner to a platter of Iberica de Bellota charcuterie (£15) - finely sliced jamon and dried sausages from the much-loved, acorn-fed Iberian pig. The Gran Reserva joselito shoulder is stunning - nutty, complex, with a deep, lived-in flavour. Chorizo and salchicon are rich, mellow and high-flavoured, but I find the hand-cut slices of Gran Riserva jamon suffer from being the first off a newly started leg, as they are waxy and ungiving, a case of being in the right place at the wrong time.
A bottle of lush and ripe La Planta 2002 tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero on the all-Spanish wine list is quite at home with the jamon for £24.50. But that's the thing, isn't it - all these foods and wines are the best of friends, able to mix and match without a single jarring flavour note.
At £1.25 a pop, it's hard to see the tiny montaditos as anything but a party canapé, if my very small sardine, red onion and parsley number is anything to go by. The grills with country toast, however, at £5, could each be a light supper. Grilled squid with alioli is a charmer - the squid is grilled quickly until tender and smoky, the tentacles crisp, the alioli gentle. So is just-wilted baby spinach tossed with raisins and pine nuts (£3.50), and gambas al ajillo (£6.50), sweet garlicky prawns served still sizzling in a little terracotta pot, the integrity of the dish caught by perfect timing at the stove.
Huevos revuelto de morcilla y pinones (£4) might be the ugliest dish I have ever met. It is a mucky, earthy, hash of scrambled eggs stained with blood sausage and studded with pine nuts. Sweet, hot, eggy, spicy, nutty, it is Spanish comfort food, despite looking like something stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
Passing on Catalan cream and pears in red wine, I fall upon Enric Rovira's chocolate dessert (£3.50), knowing only that Enric Rovira is Spain's finest chocolate maker. Crisp, ultra-thin toast is topped with two tablets of bitterly dark chocolate, already melting into very upmarket Nutella. It is like dipping churros into Spanish hot chocolate at Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid; an unbelievably seductive experience.
I love this little place. It is simple and casual, but built on quality, with wonderfully compatible flavours. This is not to say it couldn't do better: the tables are too small to make sharing easy; the good-humoured staff are struggling to keep up; and bread-based tapas can dominate the meal. But it's a joy, the sort of place you could drop in to twice a week - or twice a day - if only for a Cruzcampo beer and those fabulous broad beans.
So it looks as if tapas is no longer The Next Big Thing. It can't be, if it's already here.
14 Tapas Brindisa 18-20 Southwark Street, London SE1, tel: 020 7357 8880. Open Mon-Thurs 11am-11pm, Fri-Sat 9am-11pm. Around £75 for dinner for two, including wine and service
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
Second helpings: More tapas
Meza 100 Wardour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7314 4002 What was Conran's mod-Asian Mezzonine is now a fully fledged tapas restaurant, complete with a meet-me-at-the-jamon bar, a lively cocktail scene and charming young Spanish staff serving up slightly over-decorated plates of tortilla with manchego cheese, albondigas meatballs, and chorizo Iberico.
El Rincon de Rafa 244 Deansgate, Manchester, tel: 0161 839 8819 Tucked away down a side alley behind Deansgate, this lively, popular Spanish restaurant and tapas bar is notoriously hard to find. Persevere, and you will be rewarded with chilled draught Cruzcampo beer, a good Spanish wine list and authentic tapas dishes including boquerones (marinated anchovies), patatas bravas, and baby octopus in a tomato sauce.
Don Pepe 19 Victoria Street, Liverpool, tel: 0151 227 4265 While this cellar restaurant serves up an impressive à la carte menu of more substantial Spanish offerings around its showpiece fountain, it is best known for its sparkling array of tapas. Try the freshly sliced Serrano ham, fried chorizo, Galician empanadas (pastries filled with tuna, pepper and potato) and the ever popular patatas bravas.
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