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El Norte: Spanish fine dining falls short of fantastic

For the price at El Norte, you’d expect failure-free fare, says Kate Ng. But it’s a fancy treat, nonetheless

Thursday 20 October 2022 12:00 BST
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Start with a tortilla de trufa (truffle omelette with manchego cheese) and some jamon or goat’s cheese, pistachio and honey croquettes
Start with a tortilla de trufa (truffle omelette with manchego cheese) and some jamon or goat’s cheese, pistachio and honey croquettes (Kate Ng)

Now, I know Spain is a mere two-hour flight from London – four hours, at a stretch – but the last time I tried to go to Barcelona was this summer and with air fares on an uphill climb (just like everything else, really) it was prohibitively expensive. Which means I have to find my Spanish food fixes here in London, preferably in restaurants that aren’t just as prohibitively expensive as a Ryanair flight with no carry-on luggage or seat included.

El Norte is not the place to go if you’re after an affordable Spanish meal. Granted, it is located in Mayfair, where “affordable” is a dirty word. I would usually have no business even sniffing the air in the neighbourhood. However, I graciously accepted an invitation to review El Norte because a girl’s gotta eat and this girl wants a treat.

The restaurant opened its doors in December 2021. It’s the third venture from Madrid-born twin restaurateurs Arian and Alberto Zandi, who already own Latin-American restaurant Zuaya on Kensington High Street and Italian restaurant Como Garden in the same area. Both restaurants serve tapas, so price points are more digestible – but only just, with Como Garden dishing up a £20 chicken milanese and Zuaya flogging salted padron peppers for nearly £9.

El Norte is undeniably the most expensive of the brothers’ three ventures, and considering it’s their home turf, it’s not a surprise they wanted to roll out the red carpet. You only have to look at its neighbours – it rubs shoulders with all the designer stores on Old Bond Street, plus The Ritz is just down the road. It is the most luxurious in appearance, all bevelled mirrors, marble tabletops and fringed lamps when you step inside.

The music, however, I must say I found jarring – I think I expected some classical Spanish guitar but what I got was heart-thumpingly loud club music. A bit odd given the fanciness, but perhaps I’m just a stuffy old woman.

Fresh tomato salad with a sweet vinaigrette
Fresh tomato salad with a sweet vinaigrette (Kate Ng)

My dining partner and I were treated to a fantastic tortilla de trufa (truffle omelette with manchego cheese), covered in generous shavings of black truffle, as well as some delicious croquettes – croquetas de jamon (ham croquette) for me and croquetas de queso de cabra (goat cheese, pistachio and honey croquette) for my pescatarian guest. The potatoey, cheesy combinations were creamy and melted in the mouth, which is always, always a delight.

By now, though, the music is getting rather loud. We’re seated under a speaker, which made matters worse as my already poor hearing makes me a bit of a nightmare dining partner due to my constant requests for repetition. Nevertheless, we persisted.

Glazed Iberican pork with potatoes
Glazed Iberican pork with potatoes (Kate Ng)

A bright, sweet tomato salad goes down a treat, while yet another dish of potatoes covered in a red pepper sauce adds a bit too much stodge to the table. It’s been said that you can judge a Spanish restaurant by the quality of its patatas bravas, and these would have been perfectly good had we not already stuffed our faces with potatoes earlier.

But I need to pull myself together, because a plate of glistening glazed Iberican pork has just landed in front of me – with, you guessed it, more potatoes. I won’t be eating those, but the pluma de cerdo Iberico glaseada excites me. Opposite, my partner is served a generous grilled octopus tentacle (pulpo a la brasa) with pepper sauce and… mashed potatoes. There’s just a few too many potatoes on this menu, which is not something I ever thought I’d say, but here we are.

Grilled octopus with slow-cooked lentils and chimichurri
Grilled octopus with slow-cooked lentils and chimichurri (Kate Ng)

The quality of the Iberico pork is outstanding – it’s tender and juicy, cooked just so it is pleasingly chewy without being tough. However, there’s something missing. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then it hits me; seasoning. Somehow, there just doesn’t seem to be enough of it on the meat, which is all texture and only a hint of what could be truly great flavour. A hit of salt could bring out the characteristic sweetness of Iberico pork to make it truly incredible.

It’s the same with the octopus. The cooking is faultless, as the tentacle is tender, charred at the right parts where the suction cups and the tip have been caramelising on the grill. But it lacks punch and impact, which I think could be corrected quite simply by adjusting the seasoning before and while the meat is cooked.

El Norte serves up some genuinely good Spanish fare, but its prices certainly aren’t for the faint of heart. Between just the mains (£41 for the Iberico pork and £36 for the octopus dishes), it’s the kind of place a fat cat tycoon tourist would love or if you suddenly won £1,000 in the lottery and wanted to splash your cash in style. If you’re lucky enough to be one or the other, then you’ll certainly enjoy yourself here.

El Norte, 19-20 Dover St, London, W1S 4LU | 020 3154 8182 | reservations@el-norte.co.uk | el-norte.co.uk

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