Barrafina is my favourite Tapas restaurant in London. It has steep competition as Tapas has become so “hip” it’s in danger of people rejecting it for being too mainstream – there’s no crowd more fickle than foodies. Salt Yard and its sister restaurant Ember Yard are both fantastic; Jose (and Pizarro) is delicious, Moro has really interesting North African influences; Fino is like Barrafina but you can book (and the identical menu is slightly less well cooked). However, for me, Barrafina has the best food and the best atmosphere. I don’t mind waiting (and you will wait) because I can have some beautiful oloroso or palo cortado sherry and eat salty, delicious iberico ham croquettas in the queue. Barrafina has a wonderful vibe, it feels like everyone there loves food, they love talking about food, they love eating it and they love cooking it. You feel special just for sitting down. And, like all tapas restauarants, they have to turn out a huge number of dishes in a very short time and that takes preparation, the kind of preparation you can use in your own kitchens.
Spanish tapas are made excellent by their commitment to fresh flavours and vibrant, simple dishes, because of that tapas does not lend itself necessarily to the TimedEating approach of very little last minute cooking. However, in a busy retsaurant context like Barrafina (and at home) what you can do is have everything except that final blitz ready to go. For the croquettas above, you can actually see when you walk into Barrafina plates and plates of breaded croquettas in the fridge ready to be fried. To make them (and I stress I don’t have Barrafina’s exact recipe) you start by making a ham bechamel sauce. Becahmel is a roux (butter and flour) based white sauce that is commonly found in lasagne. To make it, fry cubed ham over a low heat in a little olive oil and ~125 grams of butter (Spanish ham is best but pancetta works well), once cooked (~10 minutes) add 120g flour and whisk well. Cook for a further ten minutes (you want to cook out the farinaceous or floury nature of the roux but do not brown it) before adding in 1 litre of whole milk. Make sure to add the milk a little at a time and whisk constantly to avoid lumps. Cook for 10-15 minutes and season liberally with salt, pepper and a little ground nutmeg. Chill the mixture in the fridge for as few hours and then roll into golf balls. Coat them in egg and breadcrumbs (just like in this scotch egg recipe but without the cornflour). Then for your guests all you have to do is deep fry them which won’t take long.
Those little croquettas are always the first things I eat when I go to Barrafina, and it was exactly the same recently when I took my Australian parents to eat there. It was one of those evenings which when it started out you weren’t sure whether it was going to be a bit of a train wreck but which ends at 3am in a jazz club on a school night. In other words, it was an absolute corker. It started suspectedly only because I’m not sure my parents are as keen on waiting as G and I are, but a couple of glasses of lovely Spanish wine and a little Iberico ham in the queue made it all somewhat more civilised.
We had many dishes (and many wines) that evening and afterwards went to “The Talented Mr Fox” which is a truly fantastic cocktail bar in Chinatown followed by the world famous Jazz bar, Ronnie Scott’s. Partying with you parents until three am on a weeknight may not be traditional, or even necessarily advisable, but it sure is great fun. There are, however, a couple of other dishes I really want to tell you about because they highlight a few other methods of preparing ahead. The first is Barrafina’s unbelievably tender and truly delicious octopus with capers (see photo above). This is the kind of classic tapas dish which turns up in many restaurants. Salt Yard do another excellent version but still my favourite is Barrafina’s, their seasoning is perfect. With octopus, you either have to cook it incredibly quickly on a searingly high heat or incredibly slowly on a dwindlingly low heat. Anything in the middle and it ends up leathery, stringy and tough. At Barrafina they cook it long and slow (my guess is a few hours in a stock pot). Then they’ll trim the octopus and portion it into individual portions. They will also have made the caper dressing well before the come to serve. That means in order to plate up, they simply sear the octopus quickly to warm through, mix with the dressing, slice and plate. This principle can be followed for so many dishes and makes life a lot easier at home. In fact I’ve already written about how it’s used for duck confit, ham hocks and pork belly. Importantly though, it’s not just the main meat or fish you can prepare in advance. At Barrafina they will have made the olive oil, caper, shallot and vinegar dressing in advance and laced it with all the spices and seasoning so it’s just right and the smoky paprika shines through just the right amount. I do the same at home, whether it’s preparing a salad dressing or a sauce or an accompaniment, many can be done in advance. Sometimes it’s the little time savings on those garnishes which make all the difference, as it is in the next two dishes, Fried sole with lemon and aioli and grilled calamari with heritage tomatoes and chorizo.
The sole is delicious, pure and simple. It’s lightly dusted in flour spiced with paprika and cooked simply in pan until golden and crispy. The dusting and cooking needs to happen last minute but the preparation of the flour mixture, the garnish and the garlic aioli (if you want a recipe click here) served on the side are all done in advance. Clean, bold garnishes strategically paired, seasoned and prepped in advance elevate a simple 5 minute process of cooking the fish into a transporting experience.
The robust spiciness of the chorizo melds with the purity and intensity of the just warmed through tomatoes, occasional hits of chilli and firm but tender calamari and it all just works. However, similarly a lot of last minute work as the calamari must be cooked last minute as must the chorizo. In which case it becomes about the little jobs; the tomatoes can be sliced a little in advance, the dressing can be made in advance and the calamari can be scored in advance. In this way the dish comes together in one go. Chorizo goes into the pan (if I’m not mistaken, with a little garlic), the chorizo renders out it’s fat and oil which will aid the dressing (if too much, some is removed). The calamari will be placed on the plancha (or under the salamander) in the restaurant, but at home it would be in a searingly hot pan, it will only take a minute. The same amount of time the tomatoes will take to warm through with the chorizo. The chorizo and tomatoes are dressed and the dish is seasoned and plated. All those little steps of slicing, scoring and making the dressing would cause the process to be delayed and the calamari to overcook. It’s those little details which make Barrafina the best tapas restaurant in London and make me keep going back and trying to replicate it at home. Look forward to seeing you guys there.