Monday, 24 September 2018

El Asador at Sabor, Regent St

If you have even the most passing interest in great Spanish food in London, chances are you've heard of Barrafina. Across three locations in Central London, these gleaming, marble-decked temples of Iberian gastronomy have, along with Jose Pizarro's emponymous gaff in Bermondsey, set a new level for the cuisine in the city, and done more for the image of high-end Spanish food than almost anyone else I can think of. It's a bit too easy to enjoy yourself in Barrafina - once the sherry starts flowing and you've picked your favourite crustaceans from the cold bar, you settle in for the long haul, ordering and snacking and slurping and ordering again, until you've racked up a bill so big you're not sure if the extra zeroes are from that extra bottle of La Gitana or alcohol-induced double-vision.

While Barrafina was earning its Michelin stars and countless other gushing reviews (not least from yours truly) its head chef was one Nieves Barragan, who with front of house José Etura were to be seen most days in at least one of their restaurants. It was an usually subtle double-act - kitchen dynamics dictated they necessarily had to spend most of the evenings communicating via the occasional barked question across a noisy dining room - but it worked, and the warmth and energy they brought to proceedings was no doubt a huge part of the Barrafina success story.

But now, it's time for the next chapter. Barragan and Etura have left the Hart Bros' empire to set up Sabor, in a brightly lit spot down a slightly dingy alleyway off Regent St, and at first glance the influences and tributes are obvious. There's the large open kitchen full of busy, smartly-dressed chefs. There's the handwritten chalkboard menus of interesting daily seafood. And there of course is a pile of crushed ice covered in a heaving spread of fresh fish, crabs, carabinero prawns, razor clams and all the other delicacies from British shores that until Rick Stein intervened, used to be packed onto the backs of lorries and sent to France and Spain.

Part of me had hoped that the opening of a new place may allow Barragan and Etura to move away from the whole Barrafina communal seating model. Call me a spoiled old grump, but I do not like sharing my personal space with a complete stranger, and if there's anything going to stop me getting in the queue at Barrafina, or indeed any of the other top restaurants where that kind of seating is the main option (Kiln, the Barbary, Padella) it's that. Sadly, on both floors of Sabor (apologies, I wasn't paying too close attention but I think upstairs is called Asador and has a slightly different menu; I can't remember the website booking page asking me which I wanted, but I may have just not noticed) it's mainly large tables, and I'm afraid I could barely hide my horror when asked to squeeze in between two parties on high bench seating. Fortunately our waiter took pity on us and we eventually got away with being sat by the wall, but I'm sure a few tables of two wouldn't have hurt. Or, as I say, maybe I'm just a hopeless grump.

Anyway, negatives out of the way I can concentrate on the positives. The food, for example, which is as good as it's ever been from these guys. Red prawns, served simply and beautifully on a wooden board, had plump little bodies and heads packed full of that briney, bisquey seafood flavour.

It's incredibly difficult to get things like monkfish tempura right, at least I assume it is as so many versions of this ostensibly straightforward dish have been disappointing, but this was basically perfect. Greaseless, moist, with a good smooth mayo (not too thick or too thin), they were a great little fishy snack, and we polished them off quickly.

Pulpo a fiera is (thank you Google) a Galician dish, involving boiling the animal in a copper cauldron. The texture is quite unbelievable, so soft and silky that they're almost textureless, and I admit at first it took a bit of getting used to. of course, thanks to some lovely spicing - oil and paprika at least but possibly much else besides - there was plenty else to enjoy about them but I did slightly miss a bit of crunch from the tentacles. But then who am I to suggest an improvement to a Nieves Barragan dish?

Finally the famous tortilla, in the Basque style so runny inside with lots of soft sliced potato, every bit as impressive here as when I tried it all those years ago at Barrafina. It's also worth mentioning not only that Sabor make more effort than most Spanish restaurants with the vegetarian options, and that £7.50 for this very generously sized item means you could probably get away with ordering just this and perhaps a snack and sample some of the best Spanish food in London for under £15/head.

Our bill was slightly more than that. But with a bottle of wine we still got away with £36.22 a head, which really isn't bad at all considering the effort going into the menu here. And more than likely I'll be back, without a pescatarian friend next time, to try their whole Segovian suckling pigs to share (£190) or a txuletón or two (£85). For that, I'll need a group, maybe ten people or so. And come to think of it, in that case, I'll probably need one of those big tables so we can all tuck in at once. Oh that's what they're for...


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