Friday, 14 September 2007

Barrafina, Soho

There tends to be a pattern when new styles of cuisine are introduced to this country. The pioneer restaurants will be toned down, tame versions of the originals, designed to appeal to the masses; think Pizza Express in the 60s or Yo! Sushi in the 90s. Nothing too weird, nothing too offensive to the timid British palette, but due mainly to the novelty factor they are wild successes, at least for the first few years. Then once the novelty wears off, a new wave of more adventurous outlets open that offer something more closely approximating the "authentic" taste from abroad. So then you start noticing things like octopus or squid in your nigiri, or fresh basil and real buffalo mozzerella on your pizza. I'm generalising of course, but with passing time it seems diners, having gotten over the original shock factor and bragging rights of trying something new, will demand a more genuine experience. At least, snobs like me do.

There is sometimes a "Stage 3": Having mastered the said style of cuisine, some brave restauranteurs will take it one step further, and you end up with bizarre fusions like French-Japanese or Afghan-Ethopian. Most of these are hideous, so it's generally in the what I like to call "Stage 2" restaurants are you most likely to get a good meal. So where La Tasca bravely brought spanish tapas to an anonymous shopping mall near you, Barrafina in Soho ups the ante by actually trying to do it well.

However, this is London, and there are certain conditions. Tapas in Spain (at least outside the tourist areas of Catalonia) are little plates of bitesize morsels (chorizo, bread & tomato, croquettas, etc.) that are placed on your drink for free (yes, free!) whenever you order. In Barrafina, you pay £7 for a tiny plate of skewered quail and then have to cough up another £5 for a glass of Manzanilla sherry. Still, you'd think I'd be used to it by now.

Moaning aside, Barrafina was actually a reasonably enjoyable way to spend an evening. Looking less inside like an authentic tapas bar than a 1950s American diner, there were a dozen or so red leather stools alongside a gleaming chrome bar. The food (at least most of it) was cooked on a hot plate just behind the bar in full view of the diners, which was great fun to watch. Serving staff and kitchen staff all wore the same white outfits and moved around in the same space so you actually felt quite involved in the whole process. We randomly picked a few things from the menu and sat back and watched as they were cooked in front of us.

First to arrive was Pan amb Tomate (tomato bread), which was actually as good as I've had in Spain. Tomato flesh on crunchy bread spiced with raw garlic, it is admittedly a difficult thing to get wrong but even so was very nice. A board of sliced chorizo appeared next, which were only OK but swiftly followed with sweet and succulent whole prawns cooked in salt, the best of all the dishes we tried. The special tomato salad was full of flavour but hugely overseasoned - it was crunchy with salt. I saw the chef loading it with the stuff as I was sat about 3 foot away whilst the dish was being prepared, and I probably should have said something at the time, but never mind. Next, a couple of roast quail were tasty and succulent but with quite a layer of fat and again overseasoned. The accompanying aioli was delicious however, and we kept it back to dip our pimientos in. Finally, a dish of lamb cutlets was well cooked and presented, although I'm not sure how closely this fits the "tapas" brief.

The bill, with a couple of glasses of sherry and some nice Catalan red wine, came to £70 for two. This is a lot for tapas (I can only imagine the amount of food you'd have if you spent £70 in a tapas bar in Madrid), but not a lot for London to be honest. And we did have plenty to eat and drink. So I can recommend Barrafina - they're doing the best they can providing food such as this in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and they do it with a certain amount of style.


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