Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Barrafina

Or should I say, food glory. Thank you again Don, for showing me that you still have the potential to make me and my stomach, very very happy.

To be honest I didn't have any doubts but I'd started to get disheartened for whatever reason. Maybe it was because of my recent weekend failure at buying anything at the farmer's market. Whatever it was, the funk was over. Don was on fire again. Amazing culinary fire. Delicious fire.

Singaporean T was in town and he asked me to go to a late dinner with him since it was his first time back in London in over a year. I happily accepted - great to catch up with good friends and have good food at the same time. One thing I've also noticed about my friends - almost all of my close friends are foodies. Just something we all love in life, I guess - good food. I'll take it.

He gave me two choices for dinner: Polpo or Barrafina.

Polpo I had actually been to as part of the original time I had been to London to workshop with my team when I was moving to Helsinki all that time ago. I remembered it being a beautifully ambient place with dim lighting, high grey wooden bar tables and a gorgeous menu of little shareable plates. Things like meat balls, fried dishes, and really nice wines. We had a great time there, my team, after the two day session we'd had locked in a room together at Trafalgar Square. Good memories.

But I hadn't been to Barrafina before, so we decided to go there. Turns out neither had Singaporean T. And he'd been looking forward to exploring it. For over a year.

By the time we got there it was already around 8:30pm. A product of long immigration lines and the time it takes to get from Paddington to Soho. Whatever, that's still dinner time in London. Prime dinner time, actually. The place was completely packed.

[Apologies in advance that there are no photos for this post; I was too involved in conversation and getting out my camera in a place this crowded would have been awkward at best...you'll see what I mean as I go along.]

We stepped in to the extremely brightly lit bar of Barrafina and were immediately assaulted by the rather brusque Italian and/or Spanish host man, who said there was about a 45 minute to an hour wait. Since Singaporean T was really interested in eating here we decided to bite the bullet and wait. I was kinda surprised he was willing to, but whatever, we had a lot to catch up on and the food was supposed to be spectacular.

So we waited. The way this place was set up it was sort of like a Japanese ramen house in style. The seating was nothing but a bar around the open kitchen in an L-shape. We waited behind the seats in a queue of sorts. Along the longer part of the "L" you were allowed to order from a short menu filled with drinks (of the mostly alcoholic persuasion) and small nibbles like olives, breads, and nuts. As soon as we got to this part of the restaurant I ordered a glass of crianza from Costa Brava (where I went kayaking on the Mediterranean and have fond memories), he ordered a gin and tonic, and we shared marinated olives and croquettes with ham.

They were tasty. But they just whet our appetite for what was to come.

The olives were sort of standard tasty nibblets - marinated in olive oil and some spices that tasted like roasted tomatoes, they were a pretty trio of brown/darker purple small olives, green olives (of the more acidic and sour variety, which were great) and huge green olives which I loved because they were juicy but Singaporean T thought were weird. Well, to each their own.

The croquettes were also lovely. Instead of being the normal ball of dough they were a little more...something. They were deep fried, as they should be, but maybe they were purposefully underdone, maybe not, but in any case their insides were all goo. Sort of like mashed potatoes with bacon bits inside. Savory soft, silky balls. Wonderful.

By the time we were finished with these nibbles and I was just about to finish my glass of wine it was time for us to finally be seated at the bar. We had waited a little more than an hour. Oh well.

Seated at the bar we looked at the menu and surveyed the daily specials. They get fresh seafood and it looked spectacular. We ordered with relish. And I do mean with relish.

What did we get? Hoooo boy.

Lomo iberico
The first dish we were served after ordering was the lomo iberico, or Iberian pork. This, similar to its more famous Iberian ham cousin, is cured pork leg that has been strung up and made delicious by only being fed a diet of acorns. Very expensive and very exclusive. Oh you tasty tasty thing. I've been a huge fan of this style of culinary treat ever since I studied abroad in Burgos and found out about the differences between jamon serrano and jamon iberico (the first, while still delicious, is more common, while the second is the more exclusive version where the diet is restricted solely to acorns and is only given to a certain breed of black Iberian pig...giving the meat a more intense and interesting flavor...like grass-fed beef). This pork was no exception. Smooth, dry, slightly fatty. All the right things for cured meat. Thinly sliced to perfection.

Octopus with capers
This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening and that's saying a lot, because there was a lot of amazing. Fresh octopus very lightly cooked then splashed with olive oil, fresh herbs, and large capers. It's rare that I get octopus that is so fresh it's soft, almost like mochi in consistency. It was incredible. I guess I've only ever had octopus that's been overcooked in my life because this was like heaven to eat - almost no resistance against your teeth at all. And the flavor was so clean, so pure. No flavor of seafood whatsoever. The capers and slight lemon juice were a perfect combination. So this is what fresh seafood is all about. :)

Morcilla with quail eggs
Blood sausage is just one of those facts of life. Where I studied abroad, in Burgos, blood sausage was a big thing. They had a regional specialty there with crispy fried rice in it and a thicker skin. Their sausage was also quite large, almost two inches in diameter. The blood sausage that was served at this restaurant was a completely different beast. A gourmet beast. A glorious beast. This one was delicate, silky smooth, and completely savory. Almost no skin to speak of, it was almost rare on the inside. Soft, gorgeously flavorful, and covered with a sunny-side-up quail egg that still had a gooey yolk. Fantastic. Little wafer-thin slice of toast to give it the necessary crunch. Delightful. If I could have this for breakfast once a month I'd be so happy.

Tortilla with ham and spinach
Tortillas in Spain are made from egg and potato instead of out of flour, like Mexican tortillas. We opted for one with stuff in it rather than the classic. We didn't make a mistake. This one was chock full of spinach and ham along with caramelized onions. When we cut it open it was like spilling onion gravy gold all over our plates it was so juicy inside. Wonderful. Singaporean T was infatuated with this dish and it was a delight just watching him eat it. I did love this but it's hard to love it when there were so many other things to rave over.

Clams with white wine and parsley
One of the daily specials were small clams with white wine and parsley. Yes, we definitely will take some of those. The other mollusk option was mussels, but for whatever reason we didn't go for them, and it's kinda cool that we didn't because we got the last bit of what was on offer for the day. Yes, scoop the cool! These were incredible. I've started to get used to the whole "so fresh it literally just came from the sea" seafood and I'm all about it. These were like drinking sweet sea soup. Little, tender nodules of sea meat, floating in a flavorful savory broth of white wine, butter, and parsley. This is what clams should always be like. I cannot even describe.

Prawns covered in peppers 
Another daily special were extra large prawns that were battered and fried with peppers. I don't even know how to describe the beauty of this dish, but it was incredible. These extra large prawns (of a species I've never seen before, as they were quite red from the start, even before cooking) were covered in a large bell pepper and then battered and deep fried. But it was to just the point of cooking and served almost room temperature instead of piping hot. What this did (and I'm not sure how they did this) was make the meat inside insanely juicy, as though you're eating a prawn cocktail but with the benefit of breading (that was incredibly soft and not hard, with just a little bit of crunch) and the juicy pepper around it. I loved this dish. Definitely my favorite of the night. The prawn was cooked so well that it was like the texture of lobster tail, and equally as flavorful. I love seafood so much. Never going to give it up. I will curse the skies if I ever get gout and need to give up seafood in my life.

By this time, readers, I'd had two more glasses of red wine, both different than the first and from each other, as per recommendations from our helpful server. One was from Rioja (another reason I visited while studying abroad, and which I loved) and another was a reserva of some kind, I believe also from Rioja. In any case they were wonderful and I loved them. Singaporean T was continuing with his gin and tonics for the night but I applauded him on his exploration of the gins on offer - there was a Spanish gin which apparently was rather medicinal and Hendricks, a classic go-to.

By the end of the meal we were less interested in dessert (Singaporean T is apparently like my old self and doesn't eat much sweet food) but he did agree to have a dessert drink with me, so we both ordered a glass of the dry sherry and continued grand conversations. The sherry was fantastic. I'm started to take a real liking to the stuff after my experience with it at Luomo with Hong Kong P. The stuff is great; especially when you know what you're in for. You can go syrupy and raisiny, or you can go dry and almost get to the point of port with less spices. I love it. Going to have to explore more in this territory.

And that ended our meal. We ended up spending about three and a half hours there in total, including the waiting time. I guess that's about right though, when you have good conversation and great food. I would definitely come back here again from the food quality alone, but anyone I brought would need to be aware of waiting in line. Should you come later in the night there may be no wait (two girls came around 10:30pm and sat down immediately next to us) but about a third of the menu was unavailable. So, I guess it's a give and take.

Thanks Don, for showing me another culinary wonder.


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