Barcelona was one of the first European cities Jon and I visited after we moved to London, and right now, as the temperature hovers at 40F, I can think of nothing better than the Mediterranean life of Barcelona. Second best option: a stop in Soho at Barrafina restaurant, which is modeled on the lively and delicious Cal Pep in Barcelona.
Even on a Monday night, Barrafina was packed. No reservations, so you show up and wait your turn for a coveted bar stool. Luckily, you can order off a limited menu while waiting, so Jon and I flagged down one of the surprisingly friendly waiters (surprising because they look so harried) and got ourselves set up with manzanilla, ham croquettes (£4), and jamon de jabugo (£12.50). Time flies when you munch on crispy fried croquettes and fatty, melt-in-your-mouth iberico ham.
Barrafina is like Cal Pep in the energy and cheerfulness of both diners and cooks behind the counter, and in the quality of ingredients. Barrafina is slightly more elegant and definitely pricier. Our eight tapas and five glasses of wine cost £95. (At Cal Pep, our six tapas and bottle of wine cost just shy of 60 euros). That said, a trip to Barrafina requires a quick jump on the Tube, as compared to jumping on a plane to Barcelona.
Once seated at the bar, we ordered a ton of food. Our two Mozambique prawns were enormous (they were the size of langoustines) and although they were sweet and plump, they were served slightly overcooked to toughness. I’d be less picky if they hadn’t been £6.50 per prawn. If I had to pick another mildly “low” point to the meal, it’d be our order of quail alioli, not because there was anything wrong with the dish’s execution, but more because we had (unreasonable) hopes that it would taste like something other than grilled chicken with a tangy garlic mayonnaise. That the pretty-good-overall prawns and quail were the weakest parts of our meal speaks volumes about the high quality of the tapas at Barrafina.
A tower of fried anchovies were light, airy and crispy; the grilled calcots were a sweet, smoky cross between a scallion and a leek; and I loved the coca mallorquin, which sadly had nothing illicitly stimulating about it, but happily was a thin, crispy pastry shell piled high with wilted spinach, pine nuts and raisins (£4.50). Crispy and soft; sweet and nutty. Delish.
It’s probably impossible to make a tortilla (£4) sound impressive or special, but the memory of Barrafina’s version stays with me – the sweet onions, creamy, eggy center and perfectly-shaped, unburned exterior. My homemade tortilla espanola never turn out half as pretty or tasty.
And what really endeared Barrafina to me was their easy-going, customer-friendly attitude. Tap water wasn’t a problem, and neither were regular top-ups of our water glsses. Food and wine were served with a smile. You’d never know the place was a business anxious to turn over bar stools. Barrafina, Ole!
Barrafina, 54 Frith Street, W1D 4SL, 0207 813 8016; Closest tube: Leicester Square