Barrafina and Palomar

The exhilarating and audacious menus at these London openings raise bar food to flavoursome new heights

The Gannet is old enough to remember when anything other than liquid sustenance was hard to find at a bar. A bag of crisps, perhaps, or the olive in a martini – hardly the most balanced of diets.

This baffles many southern Europeans. Nobody in Spain, for instance, drinks without eating, or vice versa. Frith Street’s tapas bar Barrafina (second picture) took its inspiration from Barcelona’s Cal Pep, and it is a sign of London’s changing eating and drinking habits that it is invariably busy. Its success has spawned another Barrafina, a mere croqueta’s throw from Trafalgar Square. The handsome, light-flooded corner restaurant is much larger, with 29 bar stools and a lower-ground-floor space that can be booked for private parties.

The menu is mostly different, too: chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho has introduced a new frituras section, treats from which include deep-fried ortiguillas (sea anemones), a speciality of Cádiz; suckling pig’s ears; creamy, piquant milk-fed lamb’s brains; and herb-crusted rabbit shoulder. While there is still plenty for more apprehensive palates to enjoy, ox tongue and lamb’s kidneys also feature on Barrafina’s exhilarating menu. It is as though St John had slapped on some sun cream and headed south for the summer.

The recently opened (and wildly popular) Palomar (first picture), on Rupert Street, seems to have taken inspiration from Barrafina, although the corridor-shaped bar opens out into a small dining room at the rear, where tables can be booked. The 16 bar stools cannot: if you don’t want to queue, my advice is to arrive either early or late.

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The Palomar comes from the team behind Machneyuda Restaurant in Jerusalem, where Levantine ingredients are reworked with flair into flavoursome dishes. Israeli and Lebanese larders have much in common, but The Palomar smartly avoids the stuffy conformity of many Lebanese restaurants with such menu choices as wild-trout rillettes, for example, with shredded celeriac and a crisp wafer studded with hazelnuts. Kubenia is another gem: Palestinian steak tartare, seasoned with tahini, herbs and toasted pine nuts.

The lively open kitchen makes dining on one’s own a pleasure, while the food is well thought out and beautifully executed.

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As well as flavour, every dish has colour and crunch: and, given that many of them are eminently moppable, it is just as well that the cholla-style Kubaneh bread is so good. The Palomar is an audacious and rather brilliant restaurant. As far as Levantine food in London goes, it has certainly raised the bar.

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