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.
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.
For 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
Posted by +Hugh Wright