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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Tapas Brindisa

There are few things better in this world than pan con tomate. Few things more simple. Bread with tomato. No fancy cooking techniques, no long list stating the provenance of all the ingredients. Yet it’s a dish that so many restaurants get wrong. Often the bread is soggy having stood pre-prepped hours before service, or they aren’t brave enough with that rub of garlic, or there’s big chunks of tomato rather than the finer pulp spread across the bread. Recently a Spanish restaurant presented me with a full tomato, a slice of toast, an unpeeled garlic clover and olive oil. DIY pan con tomate. The lazy bastard of a chef must have been on his siesta. Needless to say the rest of the meal was just as disappointing. A good pan con tomate to start a meal off makes a big promise. It shows a confidence from the kitchen that they will let the ingredients do the talking, and at Brindisa they get it spot on. What followed was ingredients put together, rather than dishes- Spanish cooking at its best. Padron peppers with salt. Summer vegetables with chorizo and a duck egg. Prawns with crispy garlic and a fiery kick of chilli. Pork fillet served pink with sweet peppers and some chorizo oil.

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All Spanish restaurants know what to do with a potato and here the chorizo tortilla was as good as any. But the Huevos Rotos was the star of the show. If ever a dish was designed to soak up last night’s booze then this is it. It’s the hair-of-the-dog of dishes. So good that you’re ordering an Estrella half way through it. Served in a small pan the slices of potato are glued together with the rich egg yolk and have a lick of salt and colour from the chorizo. Offered this or Kendall Jenner as a last dish to feast on before I die, and I’d probably take this.

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Brindisa has a lot of competition- not only for Spanish restaurants in London- but set on the corner of Borough Market, you only have to walk five yards to get stuck into a a range of cheap lunches. But it continues to hold it’s own. It’s not quite as adventurous or refined as Barrafina or those in the Salt Yard Group- but for it’s sheer simplicity, it remains my favourite spot for a weekend lunch.

8/10

18-20 Southwark Street London SE1 1TJ
Tapas Brindisa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Similar: BarrafinaJoseMorito

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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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Zoilo

Oxford Street is a hell-hole of tourist traps. You have to venture down the side-streets to come across the good stuff- like Roka, Berners Tavern and Aqua. But these restaurants empty your pockets and are best saved for a special occasion. If you’re after something more informal, there are few better places than Zoilo, just behind Selfridges on Duke Street, a discreet little Argentinian restaurant serving up great small plates and Argentinian wines at decent prices.

Inside it has a very intimate vibe with a main bar counter on both floors to sit up at. Choose the one downstairs as you get to overlook the chefs at work, which is always ideal for a date when you realise you have nothing in common and run out of chat. There’s a good choice of wines by the glass or carafe, which in theory allows you to drink a bit less, but inevitably means you try three times as much. What I loved about tonight was that we weren’t handed a menu and told to order straight away. I’m getting sick of being told what to do in London restaurants. Of being hurried in and out, so that some tosser who can have my table for 10pm (who even eats at that time anyway, a tosser, thats who).

We were invited to order a couple of bar snacks with our first glass of wine. The first was the empanadas- basically the South American equivalent of a pasty. At £3.50 each these are a great little bites. One was filled with braised beef skirt potatoes, onions and olives, the other with chicken, grilled peppers, shallots and cumin and although they could have been bigger with their flavours, they were still delicious. The pig’s head croquettes (£5.95) were a little small for their price, and didn’t have the strong piggy flavour I was hoping for. But that quince jam made up for it.

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We then moved onto the main menu, starting off with Scallops, sweet  potato, caramelised pork belly and chorizo (£9.25). Of course all of these ingredients are classic combinations, but it still takes a lot 0f skill to execute the dish perfectly. It’s all a balancing act, as with the big salty hit from the chorizo and pork belly, there’s always that risk that you overpower the scallops. But they nailed it, and to make it even better there was several different textures involved making it a real pleasure to eat. The only complaint was that the scallops were tiny. Big juicy ones would have been fairer for this price. But you can’t win them all.

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Next was the“Chimichurri”  burger with  provolone  cheese, grilled tomato, caramelised onions, pickles and aioli (£6.95). Just reading that makes me want it again. These ingredients inside a bun can’t help but taste great. And with a perfectly juicy beef patty this was a really solid burger. Considerably better than some of the trash I’ve been served up at burger joints recently.

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Then there was a white asparagus salad  (£7.50)with a cheese souffle in the middle that was unusual but absoloutely brilliant.

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Another hit was the warm octopus and mussel salad (around £7) that had picked up a good char from the grill. It was served with broad beans and a tangy green sauce. With it we got the classic chips “provenzal” £3.95 – these might just be some of the best chips around. Finally a restaurant that doesn’t bottle it with the garlic. These were absolutely laced with the stuff. If you’re on a date and order them you can write off any action later.

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The food continued to please with desserts- the milk cake came with a refreshing passion fruit sorbet and the flaked almonds and biscuit gave it a bit of texture. The dulce de leche crème brûlée with a dollop of caramel ice cream speaks for itself. IMG_2314

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There’s a lot to love about this restaurant. The food is intriguing and comforting at the same time. It could possibly be a bit bolder with some of its flavours to give some dishes more of a punch, but there wasn’t any dish that we didn’t love. The food tastes like it’s been made by the chef. Of course all restaurant food does or should, but I mean you don’t feel like this has been churned out in some huge kitchen by just any chef. There’s something personal and homemade to this cooking, like it’s food the chef has been brought up on. Even in the way the food was plated up, it felt like there wasn’t always a set way of doing things, like there is a passion and creative freedom in the kitchen. For me this is the best type of cooking.

The staff were effortlessly charming and with great wine as well, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself here. It has a similar vibe to Polpo and Morito, but it’s just much more laid back. There isn’t a queue of people hovering behind you, waiting for your chair. The bill came to £135 which was a bit of a surprise, but a bottle and a half of wine and lots of dishes. This always tends to be the case with small plates. It all seems so cheap and then you go and order everything on the menu. Still though it was well worth the price, not necessarily for groundbreaking food, but just for solid cooking and a throlougly relaxing and enjoyable meal. It might only be a couple of streets away from the hussle of thousands of shoppers, but you’d struggle to find a more intimate little restaurant in central London.

Food: 8/10

Service: 8.5/10

Atmosphere: 8/10

Value: 7/10

Overall: 7.5/10

9 Duke St, London W1U 3EG

Zoilo 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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Morito

Does anybody know how to get a seat in a restaurant that doesn’t take bookings? We turned up at 6.30 on a Friday and already there was an hour-long waiting list. At least they take your number so you can go elsewhere for a drink. I do hate this whole no-reservation bullshit though. What is London’s obsession with it these days?  It’s not Spain where waiting for your table outside with a glass of red is actually pleasurable. It’s East London, pissing with rain at the start of February.

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We were given the best stools up at the bar, overlooking the chef who was slapping everything on the griddle and moving to Fleetwood Mac (with some style).  It’s hard not fall in love with the casual and warm buzz and there’s enough character in the paired back decor so that you don’t think it has been designed by a tobacco rolling, tattooed hipster, like just about every restaurant these days.

To start things off my partner helped herself to the nuts on the counter, mistaking them for a Spanish alternative to a bread basket, instead of being for the chef to garnish the dishes with. She soon realised her mistake when her hand was competing with the chef’s for a walnut.

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The bread basket (£2.50) was needed to mop up all the sauces with, and there was a trio of salt dips and good olive oil at hand to get things going. The little bread sticks were a bit pointless though.

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The tortilla (£4.00) wasn’t the most generous slice I’ve had and I prefer it when it’s served hot when I’m having it for dinner. I’m yet to try a tortilla that can rival the ones they knock up at Barrafina.

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The padrón peppers (£4.50) were great to munch on, especially dipped in those salts. It was a shame I didn’t get any hot ones.

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The spiced lamb, aubergine, yoghurt & pine nuts (£6.50) has a slightly Middle Eastern feel to it, with the pomegranate seeds and mint sprinkled on top. There was a lovely balance to this dish, and plenty of textures.

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No complaints about the patatas bravas (£4.00), which had a dollop of good aioli on top.
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The octopus & saffron potatoes (£7.00) were also good, but there could have been a little more octopus. A good stodgy seafood dish though, laced with olive oil.

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The chicharrones de cadiz – pork belly, cumin & lemon (£6.50) were perfectly cooked little cubes with lashings of salt. This is the stuff heart attacks are made of. That’s what I like about Spanish cuisine, it focuses on the flavour, not the effect on the waistline.

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The crispy aubergine & melaza de caña (£4.50) was the only dish my partner didn’t like, just because of how sweet that molasses syrup was. I hadn’t eaten aubergine this crispy before, and I happily wolfed the lot.
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The grilled tetilla cheese, membrillo & walnuts (£6.00) is one of best small plates I’ve had in London. The membrillo is a quince jelly and it works so well with the cheese, cutting through the saltiness to give a real sweet hit.  Wedged inside some of the bread this made one of the most pleasurable mouthfuls I’ve had in a long time.

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To finish the crema catalana (£5.50) was a small but really indulgent dessert. The sugar coating on top had been glazed into a dark and brittle caramel, and beneath the custard  was smooth with a nice hint of spice and citrus.

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With a bottle of house red (£18) the bill came to £84, which isn’t exactly the cheapest tapas, but then again I’m yet to find cheap Spanish food in London. There’s a lot on the menu here that I didn’t try, so I’d be eager to come back. My only complaint would be the pace at which the food came. We had our whole meal in front of us within ten minutes of ordering, and not being one to hold back, this meant we were done within the hour. The portions were also on the small side, so if you come here hungry you’ll find that you have to order a fair few dishes. Still though, Moroito comfortably holds its own on a street with plenty of great restaurants, and serves up some of the best tapas I’ve had in London.
Food: 8/10

Service: 7.5/10

Atmosphere: 8/10

Value: 7.5/10

Overall: 8/10

32 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE

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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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