There’s plenty of good Spanish food in London, but you must be prepared to empty your wallet to get your fill. Those addictive little toothpicks and endless tapas dishes soon add up to a hefty bill. But when it is done well, there are few more enjoyable meals to be had. It’s also the home of small plates, something London is obsessed with at the minute. Just about every new restaurant is jumping on this small plates band wagon, which is fine if the dishes naturally merit being shared, but as was the case with Social Eating House recently, pearl barley or a fillet of turbot were not really ideal for passing across a table. The Spanish have perfected this style. The food is easy to share, and it all combines to make a meal feel like an event. It is something that brings people together to chat and take their time with plenty of wine over a long evening. We might not yet be able to relax in a London restaurant, but at least we have managed to capture the vibe of these little tapas bars. The pick of the bunch are Jose, Morito and Barrafina, which usually mean queuing up to get your arse on one of the few cramped seats. If this isn’t for you, then there is also more serious Spanish dining to be had. For those who like to turn up for dinner at the right time without the anxiety of getting a seat. The Salt Yard group and Fino fall in this category. The food is just as good, and you’ll not have somebody hovering over your shoulder waitng for your seat. But the downside, it that they just aren’t as fun.
Tonight it was Fino, the older sister of Barrafina, now in its tenth year of service. It’s a much maturer restaurant, with an older more suited clientele. Tucked in a classily decorated basment just off Charlotte Street, this is all about starched napkins and a thick wine list, rather than stuffing food into your mouth with your fingers and sloshing down bottles of beer. The food is what does the talking though, and the dishes, just like the service, have been perfected over time, making it a consistently solid experience. There’s none of the experimentation you might find at other Spanish restuarants across London, just tried classics that are simply presented and taste great.
Everything is done well here, right down to the pan con tomate (£2.80 per slice) which comes on a thickly sliced lightly toasted slice of bread with chunks of fleshy Spanish tomato and plenty of salt.
The manchego cheese with membrillo (£6.80) was a bit underwhelming, mainly because of size of it. There was no real bite to the slices of cheese, and so the flavour didn’t come through as much. I had a similar dish at Morito, but there they grilled the manchego and gave a much bigger chunk.
The tortilla is unrivalled in London. It’s better than most of the tortillas I’ve had in Spain. With strong chorizo and aioli (£8.60) combining with the creamy egg that bursts out the perfectly crisp outer shell of the tortilla this is as good as it gets.
The stuffed courgette flowers were the star of the show tonight. They outshone the same I had at Smokehouse earlier in the month. The balance here between the sweetness of the honey and the strong hit of goat cheese was perfect. The batter was so light that a gentle press of the spoon caused the cheese to ooze out. Simple and perfect.
The calamar en tinta (£8.90) was a stuffed baby squid, cooked in the ink. Again a solid dish that leaves you with a jet black smile.
The grilled quail (£8.50) had been butterflied and had a crisp salty skin, but it needed a kick from a sauce to give it a punch. Maybe some romesco, or even just a hit of garlic or lemon to bring it to life.
The grilled pork (around £13) was served pink and had a lovely deep meaty sauce with plenty of paprika, garlic and chorizo that combined perfectly with the sweet garden peas.
To finish I had the torrijas (£6.5) which is a slice of bread that has been soaked in milk with honey and spices, which has then been fried and came with a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream. It as really sweet, but it was hard not to love these ingredients working together.
It was a really enjoyable meal, but there’s not much value for money to be had at Fino. £5.40 for a bottle of Estrella is pushing the boundaries of what I’m willing to pay. As is £7.80 for one courgette flower no matter how good it tastes. With a bottle of Calcari (£33) the bill shot up to the £70 per head mark, which makes this more of a special occasion or expense account sort of place, rather than a casual bite after work. Even though the cooking was just as strong, Barrafina remains my pick, even if it is a struggle to get a table. It’s just a lot more fun than this, and that’s what tapas should be.