Top Tables

Maresco review: A new London tapas bar bringing seafood simplicity to Soho

The seafood is pincer-wavingly fresh, but this ice-packed specialist could do with a dose of warmth, writes Lucy Thackray

Thursday 29 December 2022 06:30 GMT
Punters sit at counters on high stools at this fishmonger-vibes joint
Punters sit at counters on high stools at this fishmonger-vibes joint (Maresco)

Spain, Scotland and the sea – that’s the mission statement proclaimed by a neon sign on Maresco’s back wall, writ large in electric blue. But the clue is already in the name: “Mar” is Spanish for “sea”, while “esco” respresents Escocia, the Spanish name for Scotland.

We duck into this twist on the tapas bar – which aims to marry tapas techniques with superior Scottish produce – on a chilly November night. Perching on high stools with an aperitivo coupe of cava, we eye the shelves of fresh, ice-packed seafood at the far end of the counter, spying more than one langoustine still wiggling a pincer.

The owner, former record executive Stephen Lironi, has form for London tapas bars. He and his wife opened Bar Esteban in London’s Crouch End neighbourhood in 2013, following it up with Escocesa in Stoke Newington in 2015. The group’s newest venue, on Soho’s well-trodden Berwick Street, is its most central venue yet.

There’s an intentional straight-from-the-fishmonger’s-crate atmosphere here, from the neon signage to the gleaming stainless steel of the large open kitchen, via the long counters punters sit at to eat their small plates.

There are tables downstairs, but staff seem to pack in the high stools at the two ground floor counters first, leaving most visitors elbow to elbow.

This makes Maresco feel like a place for a quick pitstop – between Soho shopping or before the theatre, perhaps – rather than a settle-in-for-the-night kind of joint, and there’s absolutely a place for that kind of dining in central London. The international clientele agrees: on the night we visit, there is Italian chatter to our left and Swedish guests behind us. Chef Pablo Rodriguez and his team are ready and waiting behind the counter, actively grilling, sauteeing and prepping oysters and clams centimetres in front of you.

The menu is divided into categories: specials (which tend to cover seafood of the day such as mussels, langoustines and razor clams); snacks; seafood mains; veggie mains; and meaty mains.

Little Loch Broom oyster with green gazpacho
Little Loch Broom oyster with green gazpacho (Maresco)

We start with starter boquerones (marinated anchovies), which are pitch-perfect in a vinegary-sweet garlic and parsley dressing, and delectable with a glass of cava. Black rice with halibut is a similar hit, the rice dyed a glossy jet black with squid ink, rich with stock and umami flavour and topped with a fillet of delicate white fish. It arrives in a pleasingly taster-sized, shareable portion – a shallow, mini oven dish the right size for two rather than the usual giant paella pan.

A fried courgette flower (already a favourite at more than one London tapas joint) is fabulously executed, its thick trunk and blossom coated in just a whisper of light, crunchy batter, the petals packed with tangy goat’s cheese and drizzled with a subtly floral honey.

But not all dishes are winners. In fact, it’s the basic tapas crowd-pleasers that fall flat here: deep-fried baby squid are too salty and one-note, with no zesty dip or contrasting sauce to pep them up.

The crema catalana ice cream dessert
The crema catalana ice cream dessert (Maresco)

Our shared main, a venison fillet with Jerusalem artichoke puree and mustard proves tasty, but shifts the menu more towards fine dining, which feels slightly at odds with the relaxed dining room and open kitchen. We get the feeling we haven’t ordered the main highlights of the house, but equally leave still unsure what those were.

Staff point us towards txistorra, an unusual style of mackerel and monkfish sausage originating from Spain’s Basque region, for example – as a novelty dish we’ve never had, it’s cute and dainty, but the flavour and texture doesn’t set our world alight. Similarly, a crema Catalana ice cream dessert is inoffensively vanilla-laced on a bed of crunchy biscuit crumb, but not bold enough to prompt a return visit (the star of pudding time ends up being a memorably rich, raisiny XO sherry).

This slight sense of dish roulette detracts from the overall experience – were you to choose an underwhelming £16 or £22 dish, you’re unlikely to be able to redeem it with a second or third dish without racking up quite a bill.

The menu also covers such a lot of ground, from simple (marinated olives, pan con tomate) to intricate or ambitious (an artily constructed calamari sandwich; Iberico pork with shitake mushroms) that it’s hard to nail down a logical sequence of dishes, or pace the meal particularly well.

The award for “best tapas bar in Soho” is a crowded field. Maresco itself sits across from Ember Yard, one of the Salt Yard group’s infinitely cosy branches, and around the corner from Copita, reliably packed with simple Spanish bites and cosy conviviality.

At Maresco, Crouch Enders may find themselves longing for the cosy corners, long nightcaps and lively buzz of the group’s original, Bar Esteban. But tapas lovers who live for seafood will enjoy the theatricality of sitting by Maresco’s open kitchen, seeing oysters shucked and chatting to staff about what’s fresh today.

The youthful team is certainly infused with excitement about the new venture; pointing us to favourites and letting us try a few sloshes of wine before we choose one.

If the team can focus its efforts and menu on top-quality fruits de mer – putting the natural flavours and raw-bar textures at the centre of things, and avoiding disappointing dish detours – it has the potential to become a real magnet for seafood fans.

Maresco | 45 Berwick St, London W1F 8SF | 020 7439 8483 |

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