I put my hands up, the cover photo to this review isn’t my own photo (don’t hurt me). I took it from Barrafina’s website because no photo of mine better depicts Barrafina’a head chef, Nieves Barragán Mohacho, mentoring her family of young Spanish chefs. This was a similiar sight I saw during my visit to the restaurant and I found it comforting and welcoming.
As a restaurant Barrafina is sort of a thorough-bred of Spanish cuisine. Founded by Sam & Eddie Hart, two brothers of Mallorcan descent who had been exposed to life in Spain and the Hispanic world (Eddie in Madrid and Sam in Mexico City). Travelling together through Spain they decided that they wanted to recreate the experience they had at the renowned tapas bar Cal Pep in Barcelona, but tailor it to the exciting and creative London food scene. Then there’s head chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho, herself raised in the Basque Country. Known for their culinary excellence, the Basques know a bit about food, but with her extensive experience working with suppliers across all of Spain, Nieves brings a lot to the table. This is a pretty good CV indeed.
Barrafina is a no reservations restaurant (it’s in fact the restaurant that began this trend in London). It’s therefore packed almost all of the time. Many of the reviews I have read about Barrafina have been written by journalists waiting ready to stampede through the front doors as soon as dinner service begins at 5.30pm. Christina and I arrived at a solid 6.30pm, and you guessed it, we had to wait. Thankfully we didn’t have to queue outside the door like some horror stories I had heard. It was barely 10 minutes before we were offered a table outside under the heaters, which on that mild autumnal evening was welcome.
But atmosphere, yes, there’s a lot of it. Drury Lane’s space is particularly cosy and as you walk in there’s a mass of people bunched around the theatre that is the kitchen. Groups (mainly couples) sit intimately over a glass of wine, trying to make conversation while their attention is really on the cooking spectacle going on. It really is nice to watch as young Spanish chefs shout at each other (respectively). Watching the chefs they resemble a family, with the children under the watchful eye of head chef who never misses a detail.
Barrafina emulates the Iberian experience of sitting at the bar and forever ordering new dishes as you cannot help but glance at the exciting sights and smells coming from the pair eating less than a metre away. With its sleek marble tops and red leather stools Barrafina has a premium look. This look didn’t do anything for me. It wasn’t inviting or cool or particularly Spanish. I felt the décor was lost for identity. The chic and classy style of the bar contradicted the informal polos worn by the staff. Despite an established restaurant, Barrafina seemed slightly lost for identity and out of touch of its roots.
Food & Drink
You may have noticed that I haven’t included the menu of what we ate at the top of this piece. Barrafina has a daily changing specials menu, from which we ordered many of our dishes on the day. This changing menu incorporates specialities from across Spain, so you may find Ortiguillas (sea anemone typical of Cataluña and Andalucía) on the same menu as Galícian pulpo, but all done so expertly under Chef Nieves. I was too engrossed in the food that any sense failed me and I forgot to write down the price. But I do of course remember what we ate.
Both food and drink menus were concise and well-balanced. Barrafina does well to provide some of the finest drinks from Spain. I naturally went for sherry, a Manzanilla La Gitana, although the offering covered the full spectrum of sherry wines that are so often misunderstood. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Palo Cortado, the rarest of all sherries whose life doesn’t really go to plan. It’s born a Fino and then takes on the body of an Amontillado and the palate of an Oloroso. Then there’s a selection of Cavas from Cataluña and the Tintos y Blancos we know and love including Verdejo from Castilla y León, Albariño from Galícia and quality Rioja.
As for the food, it’s delicious, it’s stunning and I must say I left impressed. We began with Pan con Tomate that will always put a smile on my face, especially when garnished with a little parsley. This came with beautifully tender grilled artichoke served with an aioli mayonnaise and dressed with rock salt. We ordered 2 portions so enough said there.
The side salad of baby gem lettuce, bottarga (cured fish roe), walnuts, pancetta and manchego was sublime and managed to deliver crunch, softness, saltyness and creaminess all at the same time. Then we made for the specials of the day from which we chose grilled John Dory dressed with lemon and the Hake. The Hake was the stand out dish for me. The fish was cooked to perfection with crispy skin and the fried sage leaves added a really nice touch and flavour to the fish.
Service & Price
Excellent. Our waiter Jesús was Andalucían from Jerez (within the Sherry Triangle), very knowledgeable, proud and patient. We spoke in Spanish, we had a laugh and we later met his girlfriend, it was all good fun. The price however was steep. The John Dory itself was £22 and even the Pan con Tomate were £3.80 each.
Everything we ordered went down a treat but for some reason I am not desperate to plan my next meal there. I really cannot fault the food as you can see from my description. The problem in my eyes was that the atmosphere wasn’t inspiring and the prices were just too high. It’s a real shame because for me that’s where the real experience I know and fell in love with in Spain is lost. London forces these ambitious chefs, who look to educate about their beloved cuisines, to adapt too much to the heaving and hungry metropolis and suddenly often humble food is given a new identity. This therefore is a positive review masked by a sad reality.