Donostia

San Sebastian, or Donostia to use the Basque name, is the best place on earth to dine. The backstreets are lined with pintxo bars, and a traditional bar crawl here stretches dinner across as many restaurants you can manage. It makes dining into an event, and with food so affordable it is one the locals seem to do every evening. It took less than a day in San Sebastian for me to start questioning whether life in the rat race in London is really worth it. Grafting your balls off for an Itsu or Pret to take home with you at the end of the day. In just three days I tried fifteen different restaurants and around fifty different dishes, not one of them hurting the pocket. It was such an inspiring gorge that it made me consider packing it all in and either moving there or opening up a restaurant of my own. The owners of Donostia in London had this same sentiment and took the leap and opened up their very own place. Housed on Seymour Place, which with Vinoteca, The Lockhart and the recent addition of Lurra (by the same owners) is as close as you can get to one of those San Sebastian foodie backstreets. Try a food crawl here though and you’ll soon be broke.

Donostia has a clean white decor with light wood which would verge on being cold if were not for the open kitchen that you can overlook whilst dining. It’s a more sophisticated restaurant than Barrafina which shares a similar layout, and attracts a less lively crowd, which no doubt is mainly down to it’s location wedged between Marleybone and Marble Arch, which lacks the natural buzz of Soho. This being London, prices sadly aren’t only a couple of quid a dish, and instead quickly move into double figures, something that’s always difficult to swallow no matter how good the tapas is. The menu is simple, with emphasis put on the ingredients, but it could have been more padded out on the meat and fish section.

Padron peppers (£4.90), pan con tomate (£3.60) and a plate of good Iberico ham (£19.80) were all safe crowd pleasers with high quality of ingredients, although the meagre portions (there were only 7 peppers!) left you wanting more.

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Octopus in a Basque marinade ate like more of a bar snack than a dish on its own, but again was faultless in its simple execution and presentation.

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A single courgette flower stuffed with goat’s cheese and a drizzle of honey left you wanting a full bouquet of the things to munch through. A classic tortilla was served cold and was a needed bit of stodge, although I do prefer when they are served piping hot with a gooey centre.

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Iberico pork shoulder with romesco sauce (£14.20) was served pink and was an example of the confidence the chefs here have in letting the ingredients do all of the talking. Anything else added to this dish would have lessened its success. Still hungry we ordered a lovely dish of monkfish with black rice (£13.20) that left the teeth looking like you’d been guzzling oil.

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There was no real fault in the food, and each dish was executed as it should be with minimum fuss. Although at over £50 a head is expensive, that’s now common ground for Spanish cooking in London. What perhaps tainted my experience was that I went expecting, or rather hoping, for the same experience as I had in San Sebastian. There were certain nods to the Basque spirit, such as the goblets of gin and tonic, but overall it lacked the warmth and buzz that I associate with great Spanish restaurants.

7/10 (£££)

10 Seymour Pl, London W1H 7ND
Donostia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Similar: Barrafina

(Below are photos of food  in San Sebastian)

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Fino

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Food: 8/10

Service: 8/10

Atmosphere: 6/10

Value: 6/10

Overall: 7/10

33 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, W1T 1RR
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Fino on Urbanspoon

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Barrafina

Queuing isn’t for me. Unfortunately just about every restaurant in London has jumped on this damned no-reservations bandwagon. I get that it’s part of this informal Soho vibe, but most of the time you queue at these places for longer than you actually eat in them. There’s one exception to this, and that’s Barrafina. There’s a reason for the no-reservations here. It’s part of that authentic Spanish tapas bar experience. Seats around the L-shaped bar remain as difficult to get as when it first opened. Turn up as the doors open and you’ll still somehow find yourself behind a crowd of people. If you don’t get a seat, you’re invited to form an orderly queue along the back bar. But worry not, the waiters here are so good, that you’ll have a glass of wine in your hand in no time. And the wine here is really good, and really drinkable. I’ve lost count of the times that I have promised not to drink more than a glass, and then have finished a bottle of the Calcari 2011 Pares Balta (£30) before I’ve even been seated. Sometimes I get so carried away that after a good session at lunch I convince myself that work can be put aside for the afternoon and that I’m in need of a well-earned siesta. Mañana as the Spanish say. A lovely word that probably means heaven, to quote Kerouac. After enough wine here this really starts to resonate.

Once you’re seated, things get even better. First you get to watch head chef Nieves Barragan maintain  a calm order and meticulously prepare the dishes. Her attention to detail is unbeleivable. I’ve seen her adjust a sauce three times with salt, almost reducing it down to adding a few grains to make sure it is perfect. And then there’s the rest of her team, who happily offer you advice as they carve away at huge jamón joints and top your drinks up. All of this before we even get to the food. The cooking reflects the surroundings- clean and with zero fuss. The best Spanish restaurants keep things simple, and here the there are no fancy cooking techniques here, just top ingredients perfectly cooked.

The Classic Tortilla (£6) is the best in London. They somehow manage keep the outer layer nice and crisp and the centre molten. It oozes out onto your plate as soon as you cut in. This beats any cold slice that you might get.

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Just as good are the Ham Croquetas (£4.50), which although expensive little bites, are packed with that strong Spanish jamón flavour.

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Pan con tomate (£4.10) is just as satisfying. They serve it with plenty of tomato rubbed on and a real hit of garlic, exactly the way it should be.

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One of my favourites here is the Baby Gem Salad, Anchovies and Pancetta (£7).  It’s such a simple salad using only few great ingredients, and this really is tapas at its best. The sherry vinegar and diced shallots give it a really clean and vibrant taste, and they work perfectly to enhance the salty hit from the anchovies.
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Also great are the Chicken Thighs with Romesco Sauce (£7.50). This sauce works just as well with fish, and really brings any dish to life. You’ll be licking that plate clean.

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There’s always a good list of specials, and the seafood never disappoints. Today I went for the Razor Clams, simply grilled and served with olive oil and parsley. That’s all they need. The last time I was I had the Sea Bass with Jerusalem Artichoke Puree, Sage and Pancetta. If you ever see this on the menu then go for it, that puree will change your life.

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There is no denying that Barrafina is at the higher end of prices for tapas, but then again this is Soho, not a little backstreet in the Basque region, and when the food and service is this good you really don’t mind paying. It is a great place to sit and enjoy the buzz over a couple of glasses  (or bottles as tends to be the case) of wine. I’m yet to find a better Spanish restaurant in London, and it remains my favourite place to stumble out drunk, full and happy.

Food: 9/10

Service: 9/10

Atmosphere: 9.5/10

Value: 7.5/10

Overall: 9/10

54 Frith St, London W1D 4SL

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Barrafina on Urbanspoon

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José

José is a tiny little tapas joint/sherry bar on the excellent Bermondsey Street. If you can resist the temptations of both Maltby and Borough Market and manage to get one of the few spaces to eat here, then you’ll taste Spanish food that is as good as anything in London.

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Three classics to start- first Pan con tomate(£3.50) which only needs good garlic, olive oil and tomatoes, and we weren’t let down. Then corquetas packed with strong blue cheese (£4.50) and a good classic Spanish totrilla (£4) served cold.IMG_9982

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Next whitebait, topped with an egg and a good seasoning of smoky paprika (£6.50). It needed a little more lemon to sharpen the flavour, but the creaminess of the yolk worked perfectly with the salty fish.

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Then came the Ibérico pork fillet, served rare (£9). It looks like beef, and the flavour wasn’t too far off either, except this was much richer and more tender. It came without a sauce, just a sweet pimento pepper, and it was best like this, letting the flavour of the meat do all the talking.

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I was surprised when the dish I’d least been looking forward to, managed to steal the show. Squid with garlic, chilli and a good dollop of allioli (£8). There was such a strong hit of fire from the slices of fresh garlic and chilli and the sauce was so good that we kept asking for more bread until it was all mopped up.

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It’s hard not to love the place. The food is simple and packs a real punch of flavour, which for me is what Spanish food is all about. Before this Barrafina had always been my number one Spanish restaurant in London, but it has just been knocked off top spot. The meal came to just over £60 with a couple of glasses of red wine and this was great value. We left full, happy and stinking of garlic. I’ll be coming back to José again and again.

Overall: 9/10

104 Bermondsey St, SE1 3UB

José Tapas Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Ducksoup

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Right in the heart of Soho, Ducksoup offers decent grub for around £20 a head. As with many little joints in Soho it doesn’t take evening bookings, but it’s not the type of place you sit for a couple of hours so the turnaround rate on seats is fairly sharp. The room itself isn’t much more than bare white walls (painted to look scruffy) and a bar area where everybody, apart from the couple of window seats, is perched up on stools. The cooking reflects the no-nonsense decor. It’s simple but stylish.

The menu is European influenced with more of a nod towards Spain, and changes daily, but expect veg to make up a good proportion of the small plates, all around £6 each. The kale came with a lemon and chilli dressing, and was the second best kale dish I’ve had in London behind the one at Barrafina. Just as tasty was a small plate of colourful beetroot that was really lifted by a fresh mint and sour cream dip. There was a potted goose with mini gherkins and sourdough that needed more salt and failed to excite. And quail that was nicely grilled and served with a lovely nutty olive oil and tangy lemon dressing but as tends to be the case with quail you spend more time picking at bones than finding any meat.

What really makes the dishes sing are the ingredients. They’re well sourced and that comes through in the flavour. Ingredients like this are often best done simply, and it takes a good chef to pull it off. Ducksoup isn’t going to change the way you think about food, but it’s affordable and the small plates lets you try a few things. It’s worth chancing that there’s a couple of seats being free next time you find yourself wandering through Soho with too many choice on your hands.

Ducksoup, 41 Dean St

6/10

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