There is a tapas bar in Barcelona called Cal Pep which everyone but me seems to have been to and loved. Cal Pep was apparently the inspiration for the brothers Sam and Eddie Hart when they opened Fino. Their brand new venture Barrafina in Soho must more accurately reflect this Holy Grail as it is an all-day, no-booking, quick-cooking, sit-up-at-the-bar sort of place. Fino functions as a restaurant and a jolly good one too.
People in the business have wondered out loud whether a place stylishly and expensively kitted out seating only 23 customers at one go can make financial sense. If it can, Soho is probably the best location since a tapas bar needs heavy footfall and the sort of customer who will eat quickly and leave or be happy to graze in the afternoon.
The late Bob Peyton used to say that the trouble with customers in London was that they wouldn’t just eat one of his deep-dish Chicago pizzas, they wanted to make a threecourse event out of it. So he put stuffed mushrooms on the menu as a starter. The reason for my dallying at Barrafina was that there were so many items I wanted to try.
Daily deliveries of fish and crustacea are piled up in view and grilled to order. Tortillas are also made to order, cooked in little frying pans on the hot plate behind the bar. We had the classic tortilla – potatoes, onions and eggs – and grilled gambas (prawns) with salt. A delicious discovery was cecina (wind-dried beef) served in soft, rosy slices which goes particularly well with the garlicrubbed, tomato-soaked pan con tomate.
Other items tried were chickpeas mixed with fresh spinach and bacon; morcilla (black pudding) on top of piquillo peppers; grilled baby lamb cutlets; and pisto, a sort of ratatouille, served with a fried duck’s egg on top. Quality of ingredients and precision in the cooking were unassailable and with both Eddie and Sam behind the bar bolstering the staff count, service was quick and efficient. They won’t always be there of course.
If you choose to go the whole nine yards from nuts and olives to desserts, don’t miss Santiago tart made with ground almonds or, indeed, crema Catalana. The Spanish wine list is concise and well-priced. I liked very much the recommended Vina Amezola Crianza 2001 at £23 a bottle, £4.50 a glass. Old Cal Pep hands – I wish I was one of them – will doubtless go for one of the seven sherries on offer.
Get there during the rush hour and you’ll have to queue, but show up off peak and you’ll probably get a seat
If you’ve ever read a review of a Spanish restaurant, then you’ll think you know the origin of tapas already. You will have been told, many times, that bartenders in Spain were wont to put little plates on top of drinks when they served them, to keep the flies off (“tapa” meaning, literally, “lid”). That they thought this looked a little bleak, and so started putting a few olives on. An anchovy here and there. A slice of ham. Sautéed chorizo. A giant paella with a pig’s head in it. Until a tradition developed whereby a drink always came with a free little morsel.
Hispanophiles then usually go on to lament the modern habit of paying for tapas, and then they’re into the long passage about how tapas bars only work where there are a lot of them to walk between, where the weather is warmer and the licensing laws looser, where people are not enslaved to the ritual of the formal meal, where the natives have afición for this and a pasión for that, where the bulls are nobile and the girls are cha cha cha, until you want to prick them with a million cocktail sticks and watch them die screaming.
And it turns out it’s all rubbish. That is not how tapas started at all. I know this because my mate Bob is a doctor of tapas. He really is. He completed a PhD a few years back entitled Food, Art and Literature in Early Modern Spain – Cultural Representations of Food in Velasquez’ Bodegones, Guzman de Alfaracha, Don Quixote and the Still-Life Paintings of Sanchez Cotan (2001). He is the Schama of chorizo, is Bob. The Starkey of Serrano ham, the A. J. P. Taylor of tapas.
And he says there is a chapter in his thesis which turns tapas theory on its head. Its genesis, he says, is purely commercial. And I will tell you how it worked, very briefly, so that next time someone gives you the fly theory you can talk the tits off them right back.
Basically, says Bob, the sale of food and alcohol together was prohibited in early modern Seville by city authorities who believed that hunger would force potentially errant husbands back to their wives. Bar owners were allowed to provide tablecloths, bread and salt, as well as a small stove. Nothing more. So what people tended to do was to get a round in, and then nip across the road for some prawns or sausage or something from a nearby stall, which they would bring back to prepare and eat with their fino, manzanilla, cerveza, whatever.
The next stage of the process, the employment of a third party to prepare the food, is pinned down by Bob to a very specific moment in the early 17th century (I’m not making this up), which he backs up with reference to a novella by Cervantes, Rinconete y Cortadillo, in which the two young protagonists are advised that they can easily make a living by selling and cooking food in taverns for drinkers.
From here developed the principle of a rolling meal of little bits and pieces. Yes, it is possible that the small plates were then used to cover drinks (though you’d only be feeding your food to the flies instead of your drink) – but it developed that way round, and not t’other.
No doubt you are now impatient to share this information with the world, to lay waste the bastions of tapasial ignorance. But how to get it into the conversation? Well, I suggest you take your foodie pals to Barrafina. That’s where I took Bob, and that is where the subject must inevitably arise.
For Barrafina is a tapas bar, and the best of its kind I ever saw. I wouldn’t normally take Bob to a Spanish restaurant in London. He has spent half his life in Spain, and London’s pale imitations of its food tend to distress him. And to be fair, I have never in my life eaten more consistently well than on trips with Bob to Seville, Granada, Jerez and Madrid.
But Barrafina is owned by Sam and Eddie Hart, owners of Fino, the best Spanish restaurant in England, and I had every confidence. Sam and Eddie share Bob’s passions with equal fire, but turn them into restaurants rather than theses. Both of which are necessary to make the world go round.
Bob was impressed. And that is a rare thing. For the place looks and feels, despite a very English Soho media clientele, totally Spanish. And the food is fantastic.
It’s at the top end of Frith Street, one of London’s hottest food streets these days. Small room, big window; corner bar, 27 stools, lots of staff behind the counter pouring drinks, frying, grilling, shelling; nice ceramic Cruzcampo tap, frozen glasses, beer brewed in Seville, not, like San Miguel, in Manchester. Opens at noon, full to bursting by quarter past. Yes, if you want to be sure of a seat you must arrive at noon for lunch, 6pm for supper. Otherwise you will probably have to wait. Many of the critics, older than I and weaker kneed, heavier arsed, have whinged about having to stand with a cool beer waiting for a seat to come free. But Barrafina is a tapas bar. The crucial word being “bar”. It doesn’t take bookings. It serves unquestionably the best tapas in London, and as such is quite indispensable. So it is like a bus. If you want to get where it’s going during the rush hour, then you’ll have to queue. Alternatively, you show up off peak and probably get a seat.
Behind the counter, Eddie Hart. I had clocked him a few nights before, in his chef’s whites, snarfing a cheeky Marlboro on the street outside around midnight (at first I had thought, “Ey oop, it’s a chef smoking outside, his boss won’t like that’), and been impressed by such hands-on commitment. He does alternate shifts with Sam.
The quality of the food is staggering. Beautiful, golden, wet little eggy tortillas fried in their own pans; sizzling croquetas of cheese and ham, light and savoury and better than I have ever had in Spain (where gloopy cornflour stodge balls are ubiquitous); tiny, foetal little squidlings (described to us as chipirones, although Bob says these were really puntillitas), floured, barely stunned in boiling oil, crispy, furtive, wriggling; the freshest razor clams snapping with life; big cigalas, which Bob says is what the Spanish call langoustines (and we once called Dublin Bay prawns), and langostinos, which is what they call tiger prawns (and large pincerless crustaceans generally). All of these in the very peak of fitness, raked on ice, waiting for quick, garlicky death on the hot metal nearby.
And then also proper white gambas from Huelva and, a very rare thing, coquinas, which are tiny butterfly clams, half-inch ovals, shimmery shells that hit the plancha and get knocked about for 45 seconds with garlic and parsley and olive oil until they pop open, sweet and angelic and plump. And Eddie hopes to be laying on some carabiñeros before long, which Bob says are the great big purple fellows, like ten-inch prawns, which the Spanish love and the English avoid.
A guy comes in daily, or more often, and tosses bags of shellfish over the counter. Eddie worried that it might look a bit piky in a posh joint, or even a bit set up and pretentious. But it’s what the shellfish guy does, so they let him get on with it.
There’s all sorts of proper cooking, too; lamb cutlets, grilled quail, sweetbreads with capers, morcilla with peppers, all that stuff. There is also Jabugo ham. But if I mention the ham I’m going to have to pass on to you all about the difference between Jabugo made from pigs actually reared in the oak forests of Huelva, and Jabugo made from imported pigs that is merely cured there, and how all that started. And you don’t want that, do you?
I have just seen my dark side, and I can’t say I like it. Gross impatience, extreme petulance, blatant envy, hard-core dummy-spitting, and evil thoughts towards my fellow man: it appears that I am not very nice after all.
For I have been queuing for dinner at Barrafina, the new Soho tapas bar from Fino’s Sam and Eddie Hart, which takes no reservations. Well, of course it doesn’t take reservations. It’s a tapas bar. Do the maths: one broad, L-shaped tapas bar, 23 comfortable stools, and four glowing reviews (and counting). Of course there are going to be queues.
So I get there in plenty of time, at 6.30pm on a Friday. Eeek. Every seat is taken, and there are already a dozen people queued up along the wall.
After 20 minutes, the queue has not moved, but I am fine, chatting about the day, sipping a cold Cruzcampo beer. After 40 minutes, the queue still hasn’t moved and I am getting twitchy. My conversation dries up. My Cruzcampo is gone. There are still a dozen people in front of me.
An hour in, and I don’t want to talk any more. I don’t want another drink. My eyes have gone all funny and I feel light-headed. I want something to eat. I want a seat. I stare daggers at the couple immediately in front of me, silently willing them to leave. I shoot invisible rays of malevolence into the back of their skulls every time they order more food or another glass of sherry. I analyse each diner, each relationship, each order, looking for a potential sign of movement. They are all acting as if they will be here all bloody night, especially those three couples at the end of the bar. Oh my God, they’re not three couples, they’re a group of six! From an office! You can’t have an office party at a tapas bar, you blithering idiots. Two of them aren’t even eating any more, they’re just sitting there. I make moaning sounds.
At 8.05pm, one hour and 35 minutes after I arrived, I finally sit down. So the big question is this: is Barrafina worth the wait?
Modelled on the famous Cal Pep of Barcelona, it is certainly the closest London has come to emulating that seductive mix that is a great tapas bar experience: of seriously good produce, simple, honest cooking and a loud and casual atmosphere.
All stainless steel, marble and mirrors, it is a stage set full of life and movement. In front of me, a fast-moving waiter called Fabien pours cava and darts back and forth, as white-hatted chef Nieves Barragan flits about, turning prawns and sardines on the plancha (flat grill), and unmoulding perfect little tortillas from miniature pans. Others carve jamon from a huge leg of Jabugo and fry batches of potato for patatas bravas in slim deep-fryers. On a slurry of ice, sits the seafood of the day – long, handsome razor clams, silvery sardines, tiny almejas (palourde clams), glossy white squid, jet-black mussels, and two types of prawns.
So what’s good? Most of it. The tortilla, especially the classic egg-and-potato number (£4), is a minor miracle, crisp outside and lightly runny inside. Clams (£6.50), simply opened on the grill, are fresh, sweet and awash in their own juices, while a glistening ball of ruby-red tuna tartare (£7.50), served with a splodge of avocado purée, is light, delicate and clean-tasting.
The same kitchen expedience seems to capture the sizzle and character of the meatier options far more than refined technique. Dark, crumbly, black-hearted morcilla blood sausage (£5.50) is squished on to flame-red piquillo peppers, while ruthlessly trimmed lamb cutlets (£6.50) and two lightly scorched grilled quail (£5.80), are sensitively cooked and served without fuss.
Servings are small and measured, as you would expect, but prices are higher than you would hope. Four tiny sardines for £6.50, and a skimpy platter of cured meats for £10.50 push the bill up fast. The wine list, on the other hand, is brilliant – short and sensible – with both white and red wines stored at specific temperatures in a bank of refrigerated cabinets.
A lightly oaked, vaguely citrussy Martius 1995 white garnacha (£17.50) can’t help but be seafood-friendly, and the semi-sweet Hidalgo Oloroso Abocado sherry (£3.50) makes the most of a superbly rich, crumbly frangipane-style Santiago almond tart (£4) and a flawless crema catalana (£4) with a crisp toffee top.
Eddie and Sam Hart take turns at running Barrafina, but they are way too nice for the job. What’s needed here is a tough asshole of a restaurateur – one who knows the only way to make money is to keep those seats ticking over with a series of rules: no groups of more than four, an hour and a half max, no late add-ons, and no sitting forever on a single glass of fragrant Oloroso at the end of the meal, no matter how much you may be enjoying it.
Besides, I can feel a funny prickling sensation. It’s getting stronger, as if something is boring into the back of my skull. Time to head off, then.
The second restaurant from Sam and Eddie Hart (owners of Fino in Charlotte Street), Barrafina is a Spanish Tapas bar with a counter seating 25 people and a few tables and chairs outside during the summer – the Tapas is of the highest quality and the atmosphere busy.
Sam and Eddie Hart have done it again. Their tiny tapas restaurant, Barrafina, may be small on space but it’s big on authentic ingredients.
Handily located on Frith Street, Barrafina is already attracting the quintessential mix of Soho-types necessary to create just the right buzz without slipping into braying ostentation. Push open the heavy wooden door and the small space instantly feels inviting. Pull up a chair at the counter surrounding the open kitchen, place your order from the tablemat menus and marvel as the chefs instantly get to work on your order within arms’ reach.
From the informal counterside dining to the chefs happily chatting away to customers and topping up your glass at regular intervals, Barrafina is relaxed as only a Spanish restaurant can be. Its no reservations policy ensures it is refreshingly democratic and the Hart brothers are no doubt hoping that thanks to its Soho location it will become a spot Londoners in the know drop by for tapas whatever the time of day or night.
The open kitchen area is centred immediately behind the counter with chefs at work mere millimetres away from diners. Simply styled, mixing marble tiling and stainless steel, the glass fronted display fridges are stuffed full of fresh ingredients whilst seafood is piled high on crushed ice beneath a heap of dried chillies and fresh lemons and limes.
Following in Fino’s footsteps, the food at Barrafina is nothing short of superb. Six tapas dishes plus dessert are enough to satisfy two diners and the range of options is impressive including daily specials. Dishes start at around £3.00 with daily specials coming in at closer to £8.00 but whilst they aren’t cheap they make up for it in quality. Dishes are served piping hot, a couple of dishes at a time, unlike many tapas restaurants where dishes are piled high only for some of them to have congealed by the time you get round to eating them.
Recommended tapas include prawn and piquillo pepper tortilla, beautifully crisp on the outside with a deliciously creamy consistency inside, grilled chorizo with watercress on crispy bread, and garlic infused patatas bravas chips with tomato dip on the side. Specials are well worth ordering. Squid a la plancha, sauteed in oil and salt, as the Harts admit themselves, shouldn’t work but somehow it does. Desserts include Crema Catalana with a refreshingly tangy taste adding depth to the cream, and an almond based Santiago Tart.
Drinks can be ordered by the glass or the bottle and the wine list offers a concise mix of 10 whites, 10 reds and a selection of sherries and cava. Be careful if you’re watching what you drink however, as the staff are scarily eager to top up your glass at every given opportunity and your wallet (and head) may not thank you for it later.
The Last Word
Barrafina is clearly vying for the title of London’s finest tapas restaurant and if it maintains such superb levels of food and service, there’s little doubt that it will succeed. However, quality tapas of this standard does come at a price so it’s worth visiting after pay day if you want to truly indulge.
There’s an agreeable slickness and bustle about Sam and Eddie Hart’s sleek new tapas bar. Unless you eat here outside regular mealtimes, there will be a queue (check it out on the webcam!), but staff work hard at keeping waiting diners happy, giving them updates on length of wait and plying them with drinks. Once you’re seated at the L-shaped bar (which, apart from the kitchen and grill area behind it, pretty much constitutes the whole shebang), the fun really starts. Everything we tried was a masterclass in quality ingredients simply prepared to maximum effect . All choices from a very appealing menu were hoovered up with enthusiasm. Standouts were a flavour-packed chickpea, spinach and bacon dish, and a light-as-air crema catalana. All tapas favourites are present and correct: pimientos de padrón, pan con tomate, various tortillas and glorious sliced meats (chorizo ibérico, jamón de jabugo, salchichón). Far more fun than the Hart brothers’ previous venture, Fino , though prices are similarly eye-widening; the meats on the £10.50 cold meat platter, for example, were top-notch but very thinly sliced indeed.