Monday, 29 September 2014
Barrafina, Covent Garden
It was on holiday in Japan a few years ago when I first heard about a strange phenomenon known as Paris Syndrome. To the Japanese, so the story goes, Paris is shorthand for everything attractive about European culture - beautiful buildings, wonderful food, museums, art galleries, shops and cafés, an idealised dreamworld concocted by vivid imaginations and (presumably helped somewhat by the French tourist board) Hollywood movies like Ratatouille or Midnight in Paris. Many Japanese are obsessed with Paris, and hold it as their life's ambition to travel there.
And then they do travel there, and the dissonance between the twinkling fin-de-siècle paradise they'd been led to expect and the reality of actual Paris (dog shit, graffiti, rude waiters, rude shopkeepers, French people generally) causes them to, not to put too fine a point on it, go mad. The Japanese embassy in Paris has a 24h help line for people suffering from this most extreme version of culture shock. It apparently affects a good dozen or so unfortunate people a year; I imagine them wandering bewildered around the piss-stained corridors of the Metro, clutching a Lonely Planet and sobbing.
I experienced a very similar reaction the last time I visited Barcelona. Once we'd negotiated the ludicrous parking arrangements (spaces just about big enough to accommodate a golf cart for €30 an hour), dodged the pickpockets on the Ramblas (a good 90% of the individuals there as far as I could tell), suffered half an hour in the "flagship" department store El Corte Inglés on Plaça de Catalunya (try and imagine a big branch of C&A, only not quite as glamorous or value for money) we collapsed into a restaurant near the Diagonal who charged twice as much for frozen calamari as the menu outside claimed, and didn't even do that without a great deal of huffing and puffing and long periods being deliberately ignored. Where were the friendly tapas joints, the fresh seafood, the classy cocktail bars? I diagnosed myself with Barcelona Syndrome.
There are certain cultures, then, that are much better at selling themselves outside their borders than living up to those expectations domestically. In most of France, for example, the food is just terrible - fridge-fresh patés served on square, glass plates; bland stews of mystery meats with wilted vegetables; desserts of supermarket flan. And in 25 years visiting Catalonia with the family I had perhaps two or three meals I would happily eat again. Most of the time, at best you'd get something scraped out of the freezer from a vast laminated menu; at worst raw chicken, shards of broken glass, fag ash, you name it we saw it.
But perhaps there is a cure for Paris/Barcelona Syndrome - London. The good thing about London's culinary reputation outside our borders is we don't really have one. Ask any Japanese or American what they're expecting from British cuisine and you'll hear words like "fish and chips" or "Shepherds pie" or "spotted dick", and if you set the bar that low anything from a Greene King pub menu to a 4am doner kebab is going to be a welcome surprise. But it's the very fact we don't have much of a food culture of our own (traditionally at least) that allows us the freedom to better re-interpret everyone else's; I doubt there are very few better US-style steakhouses in New York than Goodman, for example, or a better French bistro in Paris than the lovely (and friendly) Zédel in Piccadilly. And I'm willing to bet my right arm that there are no better Barcelona-style tapas bars in Barcelona than the extraordinary Barrafina, in Covent Garden.
Barrafina is apparently inspired by Cal Pep, and full disclosure here, I've never been to Cal Pep. But I have heard reports from various people who used the phrases "hype" and "doesn't live up to" in close proximity, and a quick look through the photos on their site doesn't exactly make me want to leap on the next flight to El Prat airport. But just look at the food from Adelaide St - these crab croquettas had a casing so delicate it split apart with the slightest prod from a fork, revealing a crab filling equally impressing with lightness and depth of flavour.
The carabinero are about the only single prawn you could spend the best part of £20 on and still be happy to pay more. The flesh is sweet and bouncy-white, easily prized from the soft, deep red shell. But the best thing about the carabinero isn't the tail meat but the juices hiding in the head, so intensely evocative of the ocean it's like drinking the finest seafood bisque. It seems almost impossible, in fact, that it hasn't been artifically enhanced with spices or stock but I am assured all they do is grill over charcoal then season with sea salt. Freakishly good.
Even the salads are world-beating. Heritage tomato and fragrant fennel came topped with avocado neither too mushy or too unripe. The tomatoes were stunning, and it's not often you can say that, but fennel is an absolutely perfect match, and the heady mix of fresh herbs (some mini sprigs of basil added another wonderful dimension) was helped on its way by top quality olive oil and a masterful command of seasoning. This was no such thing as "just" a tomato salad.
Gambetas (more prawns) were this time deep-fried (I think, or at least shallow fried) and - unsurprisingly - seasoned and dressed perfectly. With these particular species you can eat the shell on the tail, and so I did, enjoying the different textures and the soft, sweet taste of the sea.
It is true that you can rack up a bill of fairly frightening proportions at the Barrafinas, in fact at any Hart Bros place (they also run Quo Vadis) but that's not technically because anything they do is overpriced. It's simply a direct result of the fact that from the moment you sit down you have such a good time you never want to leave, and will try any trick in the book to prolong the happiness. Another glass of sherry? Another plate of jamon? How about another carabinero? Oh, go on then. In that jewel box of a room, served by knowledgable and obliging staff, the hours - and the wages - just drop away. But it's all worth it. Barrafina - the very finest cure for Barcelona Syndrome.