My experience of Spanish food in London has never been great. Sad jugs of overly sweet sangria and soggy patatas bravas, drowning beneath a mound of flavourless chopped tomatoes is hardly inspiring. It always fared pale in comparison to the simple, pared back, yet impeccably executed traditional tapas I grew accustomed to eating on family holidays to the small Andalusian town where my grandparents retired. But last week, that all changed – I ate at Barrafina.
With three London locations, Barrafina does not accept reservations, so you should be prepared to wait. I had tried to visit the Frith Street branch once before, but after being told it’d be two and a half hours before I could sit down, my rumbling stomach and I went elsewhere. This time, I arrived less hungry and more determined. An hour’s wait? With pleasure.
Serving up simple, classic Spanish dishes, ranging from the famous tortilla – Time Out’s 10th best London dish of 2015 – to the hispanic black pudding morcilla, Barrafina is more than worth the wait. Friendly staff (all Spanish speaking) advise you on the menu and keep the bustling bar running smoothly as you agonise over what to order. If bottomless wallets and stomachs existed, I would still be propped at the bar.
However, with only so much cash to spend and an impressive, yet not invincible appetite, we ordered a solid, varied spread. Opting for a mix of the characteristically carby traditional tapas options (the beiger the better), we went for meat and fish dishes too, with a pudding to share.
If it’s wrong to say that this plate above, toast and tomatoes and very little else, was my favourite dish of the entire meal, well…I don’t want to be right. The sweet, tomato sauce is slightly tinged with garlic, providing this bready bite with a wonderfully contrasting savoury taste, enhanced by the addition of salt and a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top.
Ordering the Spanish tortilla was a given, and even when presented with variations (one with prawn and one with ham), I knew it has to be la classica. Sitting by the bar, you can admire the chefs at work, creating this small yet perfectly formed dish. Brown and golden on the outside but meltingly soft in the middle, this is yet another dish that uses minimal ingredients, but used to their best potential to create an exceptional result.
For the gambas al ajillo, I took nose-to-tail eating onto seafood, quite literally devouring them from ears to end. Salty, meaty and served with thin slices of chilli, to have left any part of the prawn uneaten just seemed wasteful.
Barrfina do a brilliant job at quashing the myth that pork has to be cooked right through, as they serve their pluma ibérica bloody and rare…so much so, I thought it was beef. This particular cut comes from the shoulder of the loin, and when left medium rare as it was, the outside caramelises while the inside is left a glorious red, the marbling fat left to melt into itself. This results in an incredibly tender pork dish – a far cry from the tough, grey pork chops I remember from my childhood (sorry, mum).
My love of offal is no secret – from genitals in Colombia, duck liver in Berlin and some hearty (literally) skewers in Buenos Aires, it’s been well documented. Alongside organs, I’ve really got a thing for black pudding, and seeing my old friend morcilla on the menu at Barrafina made me all nostalgic for my beef-filled days in Buenos Aires, where I reckon I single handedly upped my local butchers sales of this beautiful blood sausage by at least 50%.
This morcilla ibérica was served on top of roasted red peppers and wore a hat made of tiny, baby quails eggs. A visually stunning plate, I was slightly disappointed at the actual amount of sausage given in a portion. Now don’t tell the Spanish speaker in me that ‘small plates’ is very much the point, and definition of tapas. I am aware. But two bites of morcilla? That’s just a bit mean. Portion size aside, the morcilla was rich, as you’d imagine a sausage made of blood would be, but actually with a taste far more like a smoky chorizo than the rice-filled Spanish morcilla I’ve eaten in Spain. And while I love smoky chorizo and its peppery pimentón flavour, it’s not quite what I’m expecting when I opt for my beloved blood sausage. All the same, this morcilla was marvellous…I’d perhaps just like to have eaten a bit more of it.
Other items we ordered included the patatas bravas, so very unlike the description of the sad and soggy potatoes I opened this post with. Served on the side rather than on top of the potatoes, the sauce was a fluffy cloud of roasted red pepper puree; I’m now concerned that any tomato condiment eaten on future sides of chips will never compare.
For dessert we chose a crema catalana to share, the Spanish cousin of the French creme brûlée. Just like the kids at school who seem all tough on the outside but are just big softies underneath, as we cracked into this dessert’s hard, caramelised outer layer, our spoons were met with warm and creamy custard below.
This meal between two, with a bottle of wine to share, was £40 a head. For the quality of food, so good that tomatoes on toast taste better than far fancier dishes at other restaurants I’ve eaten at, I think it’s good value. Maybe not what you’re looking to spend on every meal out, but then you’re probably not keen on queuing for an hour every time either. So find a friend who appreciates good food, have a little snack beforehand to see you through the wait, and go to Barrafina. Because it is really, really rico.