Barrafina is such a clever name. Opened in 2006 by London's most dashing sibling restaurateurs Sam and Eddie Hart, 'Barrafina' alludes to its being a more casual tapas bar off-shoot of the brothers' estimable first restaurant Fino, as well as translating neatly, and highly appropriately, as 'Excellent Bar'.
London might, now, be spoiled for high-end tapas joints - and given my love of that cuisine this can only be A Good Thing - but Barrafina was the first to show that there was more to Spanish small plates than champiñones al ajillo and patatas bravas (although the latter do appear on Barrafina's menu and are, like everything, exemplary).
Another trail blazed by Barrafina, almost unheard of seven years ago but all but the norm now, was that of not taking reservations; seating just 23 at the L-shaped bar with a few outside tables for when weather (and Westminster Council...) permits, bookings would be impractical. Instead, plenty of space is available for those waiting and drinks and nibbles are served, creating a lively atmosphere. Lunch date Nick and I arrived early enough - just before 12.30 - to be seated straight away, but might not have been so lucky had it not been the first day of opening after the New Year bank holiday when much of central London was still pretty much abandoned.
Executive chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho augments the menu of mostly-familiar tapas classics with more ambitious specials using the very finest produce available each day. Fish and shellfish dominate and are alluringly displayed on ice behind the counter; the mackerel and sea bream on the day we visited were so iridescent of skin and bright of eye that they could have just swum in.
Dishes are served in a perfectly-judged order decided by the kitchen. Nick and I kicked off with springy little clams bathed in butter, lemon juice and parsley, a liquor we greedily mopped up with excellent bread, and pillowy salt cod fritters with properly punchy al-i-oli. Next came a whole mackerel, simply grilled a la plancha, the skin moreishly crisp, the sweetness of the flesh balanced by a colourful salad of wafer thin, delicately-pickled beetroot.
Morcilla Iberica - crumbly Spanish blood sausage - came topped with dainty fried quail's eggs, nested on a tangle of smoky piquillo peppers. Brussels tops were the very best sort of vegetable dish - the sort tossed in generous amounts of butter and stirred through with shreds of Serrano ham. A final dish of lamb sweetbreads, sautéed with shallots and capers, somehow managed to be both robustly offally and delicately savoury, a Special in every sense.
Nick and I were abstaining from alcohol but the choice for those who've not taken the pledge is outstanding. Unsurprisingly the list is all-Spanish, covering all regions and including such unusual wines as Basque txakoli and sherries en rama, drawn from the middle of the cask without filtration. Beer drinkers will enjoy the variety of bottled and draft Iberian brews.
Service is impeccable, well-paced but unhurried even given the pressure to keep the queue moving (simple good manners ensure most diners vacate their coveted stools as soon as the last plate is cleared and the bill paid). Barrafina is, understandably, not cheap, the insistence on quality produce - if the best is not available, a dish will simply not go on that day - reflected in the pricing. But it is certainly not over-priced for what is, some would argue, the best tapas in London.
Barrafina falls into that rarest of categories, restaurants about which there is nothing to fault. It's lively, egalitarian, elegant, the food is out of this world and you won't pay a fortune for it. This barra is very fine; very fine indeed.
Barrafina, 54 Frith Street, London W1D 4SL http://www.barrafina.co.uk
Posted by +Hugh Wright