Fifteen years ago, my memory dancing with wonderful meals eaten around Spain, I would sit in London tapas bars, pushing lukewarm patatas bravas around my plate, waiting for something more exciting to turn up.
Thankfully, it did: Brindisa opened its Borough Market site in 2004; Barrafina opened in Soho in 2007, later gaining a Michelin star. Now Brindisa’s head chef José Pizarro has his own group of great restaurants; Barrafina’s Nieves Barragán Mohacho co-runs the much-lauded Sabor; myriad other Spanish restaurants thrive; and the gospel of proper Spanish cuisine has spread throughout the city.
Even unto King’s Cross, and Barrafina in the shiny new Coal Drops Yard development, where executive chef Angel Zapata Martin’s menu is a delight. Perch, in Barrafina fashion, at the brightly lit bar and start with a glass of house sherry – a crisp, nutty manzanilla en rama – with a few slices of mojama (wind-dried tuna) from the Atlantic coast of Spain, smartly matched with almonds and orange. Then tartare of wild seabass with (unusually but felicitously) a purée of Granny Smith apples tinged with ginger. Or a dish of tender espardenyes (sea cucumbers) with chicken thighs, both beautifully cooked, slathered in a warm emulsion of olive oil and sherry. And presa Ibérica – shoulder of black pig – grilled daringly rare, and richly sauced with ajo blanco: almonds, breadcrumbs, olive oil and garlic. Every time I visit a Barrafina, there is something compelling to try: it is the hallmark of a truly creative kitchen.
I could say the same of the Michelin-starred A Wong, in Victoria: Andrew, the eponymous chef/proprietor, has a restless passion for taking classic Chinese dishes and giving them a modern lustre; like Barrafina, he has opened a place in one of London’s new gastro-clusters, Bloomberg Arcade in the City. Called Kym’s, it specialises in roast meats of the kind you see hanging in Chinatown windows: pork belly, char sui and soy chicken, collectively known as “Three Treasure”. All are splendid, with the crackling on the belly especially good, contrasting seductively with the silken flesh.
Tofu is silken too, its cool, fragile blandness beefed up with garlic soy and the faintly sulphurous tang of “100 year” egg. An iron skillet of pork and shrimp dumplings is topped with a riotous flurry of fried egg, black vinegar and dried chilli oil; an escalope-like “Taiwanese chicken chop” is scattered with curry leaves, a warmly spiced dipping sauce by its side. Wong is a chef at the top of his game.
That Coal Drops Yard and Bloomberg Arcade can attract such great restaurants shows that developers now accept that London’s discerning diners won’t settle for anything less. Chain trattorias and tired tapas bars will no longer suffice; actually, a dish on the new Barrafina menu sums it up: Patatas Bravísimas.