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Posts Tagged ‘Spanish in London’

Iberica Food & Culture, 195 Great Portland Street

For my first meal back in London, I wanted something warm and lively.  Something the opposite of Boston’s cold Puritannical image.   Tapas sounded ideal, but the prospect of queuing in the cold to eat at my beloved Barrafina was highly unappealing. So Jon and I decided to try Iberica Food & Culture, which opened in October 2008 but seems to have gotten a lot of generally-positive blogger coverage over the last few months (see these posts by Londoneater, Tehbus, and Londonelicious for example).

The food fell into two buckets, really.  “Pretty Good” and “Kind of Disappointing.”  There was nothing spectacular and nothing horrible.

Here’s the “Pretty Good”:

sweet pigs trotters with Mahon cheese and Iberico ham (£7.00)

Sweet pigs trotters with a sharp Mahon cheese and Iberico ham, all served on a crisp pastry.  I enjoyed all the textures and flavors (salty, citrusy, meaty) but what held the dish back was the somewhat gluey texture of the trotter.  I’d hoped for something more melt-in-your-mouth.  But overall a tasty dish.

black rice with cuttlefish, prawns and alioli (£9.85)

Black rice with cuttlefish prawns is one of my fave dishes to order in Spanish restaurants.  First, there’s the color – squid ink makes everything seem special.  Then there’s the intense seafood flavor soaked into the risotto rice.  Iberica’s version had a texture that struck the right balance between al dente and creamy, but what would’ve made a great dish would have been more cuttlefish and fewer prawns.  An entirely arbitrary preference, I know.

Fried artichokes with pear alioli (£6.85)

Fried artichokes with pear alioli (£6.85)

Fried artichokes with pear alioli have been much written about at Iberico.  And yes, they’re good (unlike my blurry photo).  Crisp with a hint of sourness that artichoke lovers crave.  For me, the appeal was mostly in the accompanying slightly-sweet, garlicky alioli.

And rounding out the “Pretty Good” list was our trio of cheeses (Mahon, Manchego, Ibores) for £4.95.  It was a generous portion and well priced for the quality.  Maybe we could have a little more quince paste next time, though.

The “Kind of Disappointing” dishes:

Marinated tuna loin with mustard, apples and chives (£9.00)

Marinated tuna loin with mustard, apples and chives tasted mealy.  Why serve raw fish if it’s not going to be fresh and refreshing?

Iberica's Version: Broken egg with Iberico ham and fried potatoes (£7.50)

And “broken egg with Iberico ham and fried potatoes” sounded so promising!  Breakfast at dinner.  Who doesn’t love that?  Admittedly, part of our high expectations stemmed from our memory of the wondrous “carpaccio huevos fritos” that we’d had at Barcelona’s Bar Mut last May. Setting aside the camera/lighting issues I had at Iberica, just compare the above photograph of Iberica’s dish with the photo of Bar Mut’s version below. Iberica offered us limp fries with a smattering of yolk. Bar Mut, in contrast, gave us crispy shoestring potatoes in an ocean of egg yolk. You understand my disappointment in Iberica’s version, then.

Bar Mut's version: carpaccio huevos fritos

Iberica’s list of Spanish wines was long, but I was again a little disappointed that there were only two choices from the Ribera del Duero.  Too much Rioja on the list.

The service was efficient, but not especially friendly or helpful (e.g., we had to guess what cheeses we were eating and it was difficult flagging down a server for sherry to go with our cheese).

Without hesitation, though, I’d recommend Iberica for the atmosphere, which was warm and lively.   It was exactly what I was looking for on a Saturday night.  I had a lot of fun, and the food was good enough.  The kitchen’s no threat to Barrafina’s, but then again, it’s nice to be able to make a reservation in advance and sit at a table.

Dinner for two with wine and sherry came to £115.
Iberica on Urbanspoon

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arroz negro at Fino

arroz negro with grilled baby octopus at Fino

A couple of weeks ago, while waiting on the hour-and-a-half-long queue at Barrafina, I thought about how lovely it’d be to eat Barrafina’s food without having to wait ages. (It says volumes, by the way, that I still thought the food at Barrafina was worth the wait).

A few days after my re-visit to Barrafina, I saw Tamarind and Thyme’s post on her delicious meal at Fino, the older sibling of Barrafina, where you can eat your tapas *and* make a reservation for a proper table. Sounded perfect. So I called Fino to book dinner on a Friday night with two friends visiting from New York.

Without totally veering off into a full rant, when I called the restaurant, Fino’s receptionist promptly informed me that they’d need the table back in two hours. Now, it’s not that I often sit at a table for more than two hours, but I like knowing that if I wanted to order a few more drinks or linger over dessert, I could do it hassle-free. Isn’t that part of the premium you’re paying for food at a pricey restaurant? It seems many London restaurants think imposing a time limit on your dinner counts as acceptable customer service. I’m not down with that. (Yauatcha is the worst of the bunch – I think they’re down to a sprint-like 90 minutes these days).

Anyway, we showed up on time despite going first to 33 Charlotte Street and finding it’s a Zizzi (Fino’s entrance is actually around the corner on Rathbone Street, not on Charlotte Street, where one would think 33 Charlotte Street would be found).

Our server highly recommended (i.e., pushed) the special of the day, a braised leg of lamb, and made a point of checking with the kitchen to confirm it was still available before letting us order it. Ten minutes after we’d placed our order, someone else came to tell us the kitchen had run out of the braised leg of lamb. At this point, it was around 8:15 pm, so it seemed odd that the specials would be gone already. Not a huge deal, but between the reminder that I had to give back my table at a certain time and the minor hassle of having to order more food after I thought I’d gotten ordering out of the way, I wasn’t enjoying myself.

clams with ham at Fino

clams, sherry and ham at Fino

And the food wasn’t nearly as across-the-board good as it is at Barrafina. Maybe it would’ve been different if we’d called ahead and ordered cochinillo like Tamarind and Thyme did. Maybe then we wouldn’t have ordered so much tapas and found that while half the dishes were pretty good, the other half were pretty awful.

For example, being one of the legions who love Barrafina’s razor clams, I was sorry to see no razor clams on the menu at Fino. But we settled for the “clams, sherry and ham,” which clams turned out to be chewy and flavorless. Our table picked at the ham bits, which were as good as boiled bits of ham can be, but at £8.70, this dish left me feeling robbed.

lamb cutlets

lamb cutlets

Several orders of lamb cutlets and an order of rump lamb were tender and juicy. Very good, though the sauce accompanying the cutlets didn’t add much (other than a few gazillion calories).

Other winners of the evening were the the arroz negro with grilled octopus (creamy and soft baby octopus melting into the rich earthiness of black beans), crab croquetas, classic tortilla and pan con tomate (the last three almost identical to the excellent versions at Barrafina, with the crab being a higher-end version than the ham one at Barrafina).

Severe disappointments (aka insults to how hard I work for the money I spent at Fino) included the asparagus (four grilled-to-mushiness spears for £7.50), the arrocina beans (described as being cooked with morcilla, but really, I didn’t see any sausage in there, which made the dish just a soupy mess of beans for £7.80).

Overall, dining at Fino was a mixed bag. Our meal might have ended on a high note with two orders of the freshly-fried, light-as-air donuts (they’re excellent and I can’t deny that Tamarind and Thyme’s photo of her Fino donuts heavily motivated me to make a booking). But instead it ended on a sour note when we were rushed away from our table upon the arrival of the two-hour-deadline.

freshly-fried donuts at Fino

freshly-fried donuts at Fino

At £160 for four with wine, our meal cost (on a per person basis) about what we usually spend at Barrafina. That said, I’ll take the queue and barstool seating at Barrafina any day over a pre-booked, sit-down meal at Fino. You could undoubtedly have a great meal at Fino if you ordered very carefully (or were v. lucky – in which case, I’m taking you to Vegas), but I’m just too lazy to bother.

Fino, 33 Charlotte Street, W1T 1RR (entrance on Rathbone Street), 0207 813 8010; closest tube station: Goodge Street
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