Restaurants: Spanish practices
Ben Rogers espies another newcomer to the scene on the Green
Saturday 24 January 1998
I don't know whether this principle was based on a wide experience of eating-out, or whether it is a little-known postulate of Freudian theory, but I am sure it is right: food and sex really only belong together behind closed doors - along with a Barry White album. It occurs to me now, however, that the "sex and restaurants" principle is merely an instance of a more general rule: restaurants are best left as restaurants and not combined with anything else - cabarets, nightclubs, theatres. A couple of years ago, I went to the revamped Cafe de Paris off London's Leicester Square: the marriage of Seventies cooking and Eighties disco was not a happy one.
Another venue that used to run music and food together was Turnmill's, on trendy Clerkenwell Green - a bar-restaurant upstairs, with a disco very volubly below, a combination that, in this instance, felt as if it had come together by chance. Now, however, all that has changed. The restaurant was taken over last summer by a young (and, as my companion pointed out, very good-looking) Spaniard, Nacho Martinez, and by the time you read this, it should have been entirely sealed off from the club below. Martinez and his backers also have plans to open an arroceria next door, specialising in paella and other rice dishes.
For a 26-year-old, Martinez has had a lot of experience cooking at some of Spain's very best restaurants. Indeed, he has moved from kitchen to kitchen at about six-monthly intervals for the past seven years, suggesting that he either gets the sack or he is very ambitious; having met him, I am pretty sure it is the latter. The menu at Gaudi offers no tapas because Martinez thinks the British "know all about that already, and it is better to show them another side of Spanish food". That side he describes as "traditional" and from all over Spain: baked red peppers stuffed with a salt-cod mousse comes from the north; pork fillet marinated in paprika and cumin is from the south, courtesy of his aunt; corn-fed chicken "en Pepitoria" derives from Martinez's native Madrid. The menu, indeed, tends to confirm rather than dispel the rather hazy idea that most of us have as to what Spanish cuisine is like - Peter Mandelson would say that Martinez needs to work on his brand image.
The restaurant, spread over the ground-floor and mezzanine of a handsomely curved Victorian building on the corner of Clerkenwell Green, and with a large open kitchen, certainly looks distinctive enough. As its name suggests, its decor, all curved walls and grottoes, clashing tiles and swirling ironmongery, pays homage to Gaudi. The effect is a little busy but romantic.
On the night we were there, the menu turned out to be rather limited, owing to a private party taking place upstairs, otherwise we might have chosen some of the simpler, more elemental dishes - rabbit salad with seasonal vegetables and a light aioli - or some of the more sophisticated: warm salad of scallop and sweetbread, salmorejo and sherry vinegar. As it was, we were limited to dishes in between: smart, but easy to prepare and serve. For starters, this included a very fine pate de foie gras - or "Foie de Pato Macerado" - homemade with Duque de Alba brandy, rich and smooth, though served with supermarket rolls. We also tried the aforementioned red peppers. I love salt cod as much as the next man - probably more - but I have to say that the moussy form in which it came was a little anodyne and didn't synergise with the red pepper: salt cod goes well with eggs and milk and garlic, as the Portuguese and Italians know well.
Both our main courses - baked turbot served on a fricassee of tomatoes and spring onions, and the fillet of pork, which came with warm yellow- potato salad - sent very much the same message: the fish and meat were tenderly cooked, but their accompaniments somehow lacked life. A bowl of sherry ice-cream was, on the other hand, an unalloyed triumph. The sherry had been allowed to cook away to reveal its heady, fortified essence, so that it tasted like a particularly smooth and creamy brandy ice-cream. This was a dish that could teach most Italian gelaterie a thing or two about frozen zabaglione. My companion had just returned from four months in Seville, but, like me, wasn't quite sure what to make of this meal: it had been confident and sensitive, but still lacked a certain edge. Martinez, a young man in a hurry, would, I suspect, do well to slow down and eat around a bit more. Still, Gaudi is well above the Anglo-Spanish norm and offers a good, well-priced all-Spanish wine list. And there is no disputing the capabilities of Spanish wine makers. Our three-course meal for two, including a bottle of Marques de Riscal '89 at pounds 18, came to pounds 88
Gaudi, 63 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1 (0171-608 3220). Closed weekends. All major credit cards.
Other Iberian eateries
London is not over-endowed with good Spanish restaurants. This must, in part, be due to Spanish cooking itself, which (as Janet Mendel points out in Traditional Spanish Cooking, Garnet) is, at its best, elemental and intensely local - qualities that are hard to recreate away from home. Here, however, are two notable exceptions:
Moro, 34-36 Exmouth Market, EC1 (0171-833 8336). Another recent arrival to Clerkenwell, this airy and trendy restaurant, with a long zinc bar and open kitchen, opened last spring. Owned by three young English chefs, the modern, innovative, frequently changing menu draws from Morocco and the Middle East as well as Iberia. Spain-inspired dishes include mojama (air-cured tuna fillet) with blood- orange salad and fennel, artichokes braised with parsley, garlic and amontillado sherry, chick pea stew with jamn, chorizo and saffron, and a traditional almond cake, tarta de Santiago. Closed Sat and Sun; pounds 70 for two including wine.
Cambio de Tercio, 163 Old Brompton Rd (0171-589 4635). This was opened two years ago, by two Spaniards who met working at another fine Spanish restaurant, Chelsea's Albero & Grana. By day, this simple interior with banderillas and torero's hats hanging from its glowing orange walls, can seem empty and rather forlorn, but it picks up at night, with a mainly local crowd from Fulham and Kensington. The cooking and wine are taken equally seriously here, and it's a good idea, as long as you don't have to worry about money, to start a meal with a plate of Spain's finest smoked ham - Jamon de Jabugo `JJJJJ' - (pounds 14), and a glass of deliciously dry Manzanilla sherry. Dishes vary from the simple, pan tomaca (a Spanish version of bruschetta, with tomatoes and smoked ham) to the sophisticated: poached eggs with a wine mousseline and sauteed foie gras. The newish chef, Inigo Ruiz de Alegra, specialises in cooking from the Basque region; seafood dishes include griddled squid with garlic and parsley, and red mullet stuffed with clams. pounds 60 for two.
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