Tuesday, 20 November 2012

El Pirata, Mayfair

El Pirata Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Down Street, Mayfair
With the exceptions of 'literally' and 'gourmet', I can think of few words more liberally abused than 'tapas'. With the not-unwelcome advent a few years ago of the 'small plates' concept came an entirely unwelcome side-effect, the rebranding of small plates of any cuisine as 'tapas'. 

Thus we have seen 'Italian tapas' (actually cicheti), 'Asian tapas' (at the appallingly-named Tapasia, among others), even Norfolk tapas (for which I have at least to give the guys at The Pigs 10/10 for originality). When a while ago I received a press release vaunting a restaurant's new 'Spanish tapas' offering my Tautology Klaxon went off so violently that my ears have only just stopped ringing.

So what an abundant pleasure then to discover El Pirata, a sleek and shiny but entirely unponcey tapas bar in, of all places, Mayfair. Pointed in its direction by a pal who works round the corner, dinner date Joe and I spent an extremely enjoyable couple of hours eating great food, drinking nice wine and finishing off with a couple of not-'alf-bad cocktails. 

Unlike the fancier new-wave tapas joints that have cropped up in recent years, there are no surprises on the menu at El Pirata. All the staples are present and correct - Padron peppers, Iberico ham, croquetas, patatas bravas, champiñones al ajillo - along with a few perhaps less familiar but nonetheless resolutely traditional weekly specials. For the indecisive or, if there still are any, the uninitiated, there are a couple of crazy-good-value set menus. Joe and I decided to take the glutton's way and just asked them to keep bringing us food until we either begged them to stop or passed out.

El Pirata Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Down Street, Mayfair
So as we worked our way through a lovely half-bottle of chilled Amontillado 'La Joya' we grazed on bread with good alioli, a plate of extraordinarily silky, sexy Iberico ham, simple chargrilled asparagus and the Russian roulette of tapas, pimientos de Padron (I took the bullet of the hottest of the bunch and the consequent thrilling endorphin rush).

Sherry drained we moved on to a bottle of crisp, grapefruity Inurrieta 'Orchidea' Sauvignon Blanc (El Pirata's wine list, all-Spanish, is tremendous fun and offers something to suit every pocket starting in the very low twenties and peaking at about £70). With it came calamari, on rice blackened with its heady ink, and sizzling prawns al pil-pil, the olive oil, garlic and chilli marinade seeping deep into the heads, making sucking them irresistible.

We finally gave up on savoury courses only having demolished some pork belly, its slight dryness made up for by cracking crackling, chicken and chorizo skewers - again a little dry, but damn tasty - and gorgeously tender pan-fried medallions of steak with a touch of white wine, served alongside creamy, dauphinoise-y potatoes.

I'm glad that we buckled and ordered afters, because the plate of cheeses, including Manchego and Mahon with that wonderful Spanish quince paste membrillo, was terrific. Better yet was a lemon brûlée, combining sorbet and cream fillings under a sugar topping made crunchy - evident in the tell-tale spiral scorch-marks and smoky flavour - with a proper quemador. 

Margaritas at El Pirata Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Down Street, MayfairFor no better reason than that we could, we ended the meal with palate-cleansingly tart Margaritas; we could have chosen a digestif from the remarkable selection of spirits, liqueurs and brandies, arranged on stepped gold shelves climbing up and down the mirrored back of the bar.

There was a last, pleasant, surprise; I knew that the friend who'd recommended El Pirata to me knew the owners, and as such figured that a couple of dishes might not appear on the bill, but in an act of unexpected generosity not only was no bill at all presented but we were forced - forced! - to accept a glass of Pedro Ximenez before we were allowed to leave. Altogether though, with sherry, wine, cocktails and tons of tapas, we'd have been looking at about £45 a head.

Perhaps because of the owners' largesse, or because of the lakes of liquor consumed, or all the fab food we'd had, or as is most likely because of all of the above, we left feeling thoroughly jolly and very favourably disposed towards El Pirata, as seems to be quite widely the case judging by the lively, buzzy crowd packing most of the two floors on our visit.

Literally, gourmet tapas. What's not to love about that?

El Pirata, 5-6 Down Street, London W1J 7AQ Tel: 020 7491 3810 elpirata.co.uk

El Pirata on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 4 November 2012


Exterior of Soif, Battersea
It always rather irks me, when reading about a restaurant outside of Zone 1, to see it described condescendingly as a 'good local restaurant', as if to reach it would require a journey worthy of Gulliver and that the preparation of decent food is somehow dependent on the possession of a W1 postcode. 

To those of us who live in Zone 2 (or - horrors - even further afield) it's the central London gaffs that need travelling to; our local restaurants are just our restaurants, ta very much, and many of them are very good indeed.

One such, which I've only just got round to visiting despite the enthusiastic recommendation of others fortunate enough to have it on or near their doorsteps, is Soif in Battersea. The third wine bar and restaurant to open in a group which now numbers four (the others being Terroirs, Brawn and the newly-opened-at-the-time-of-writing Green Man & French Horn), Soif follows broadly the same if-it-ain't-broke don't fix it formula - great produce, rustic dishes, carefully-chosen wines in convivial casual surroundings.

If that sounds like your idea of somewhere fantastic then I'd heartily concur; the slightly bistro-by-numbers interior might feel a little dated but there's nothing not to love about the food. While choosing from the daily-changing menu, chalked up on a large blackboard, three of us grazed on an excellent charcuterie selection - butch rillettes, the fat countered by tiny, mouth-puckeringly sharp cornichons, herby pork terrine and salty, paper-thin salame toscano - and a dish of perfect little leaf-on radishes Peter Rabbit would've risked Mr McGregor's wrath for.

The menu and wines are chalked up on a blackboard at Soif.
The fat, tender chicken livers on toast with anchovy and rosemary butter which two of us chose for our starters were so big on flavour and beautifully balanced that I found myself craving them for breakfast the next day; I'd go so far as to say it was one of the best things I've eaten all year. Steak tartare - simply done, un-fannied about with, a process yellow egg yolk on top ready for smooshing in - was excellent.

Other mains - a nice hunk of roast cod with moreish, Moorish spiced chickpeas and alioli and a blushing pink magret of duck with garlicky sarladaise potatoes - were gutsy and faultless. It was a shame that bavette with duck fat potatoes was only available for two; I fancied red meat but no two of us could agree to have it so I ended up having the steak tartare from the starters, padded out with an exemplary green salad.

Instead of dessert, neither of the only two choices for which appealed, we shared a selection of immaculately kept French cheeses including  Soureliette, a wonderful unpasteurised ewe's milk whose nutty sharpness was the perfect match for a tangy bleu d'Auvergne and smoky Curé Nantais. I often find the prices charged for cheese in restaurants rather hard to fathom; £10 for three decent-sized pieces here seemed about fair.

As you'd expect from a restaurant whose name means 'thirst', drink is taken seriously and Soif's lengthy wine list is big on natural varieties, idiosyncratically categorised. There's a decent selection by the glass and carafe but cheap it ain't, with very few bottles under £25. That said you get what you pay for and our 2011 Roussillon 'Les Foulards Rouges' was, like my fellow diner Rich, full-bodied and bursting with character.

The 'slightly bistro-by-numbers' interior of Soif.
Two bottles of it, aperitifs and service pushed the bill for three up to £183 - just over £60 a head - which took me rather by surprise. The food had been good, and exceptional in places - those chicken livers, my gosh - but that still felt high, especially as similar quantities of even-better food and booze at sibling restaurant Brawn had only come in at about two-thirds that.

No matter; Soif is a very good restaurant and one to which, being lucky enough to be able to call it local literally, I'll be returning. Wherever you live, it's a journey I'd recommend you make, too.

Soif, 27 Battersea Rise, London SW11 1HG Tel: 020 7223 1112 http://www.soif.co 

Soif on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright
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