If Spanish home cooking has a jefe, a boss, in this country, then that title surely belongs to José Pizarro. If I had to name one UK-based Spanish chef who inspires me, who has helped popularise the food I grew up with and care about most of all, it’d be a shortlist of one. His books are permanent fixtures in my kitchen and several of his recipes are old faithfuls I keep returning to again and again- his blue cheese meatballs in an onion sauce, his chestnut and mushroom soup, are legendary round these parts.
So this London trip was always going to feature a late-night trip to José, his tapas bar in Bermondsey. Walking past the dramatic sweep of The Shard on a humid night, under railway arches lit with lilac and purple and royal blue and green- for no other reason than that they can be- expectations were high. It had been a busy day scooting around the city filling our faces, and there was eating to do.
The street is hot, the restaurant is small and dimly lit. And busy. Very busy. In fact, it pretty much embodies the words ‘bustling’ and ‘crowded’. But it’s also remarkably evocative of an authentic tapas experience- not the ersatz version so often peddled in the UK, but vividly bringing to mind bars across Spain (the tiles, the hubbub, the stools, the constant motion around you). You wait- patiently, more or less- for a table or a ledge to become available, and you appreciate the skill of the staff who keep the customers fed and watered while ensuring there’s the requisite turnover of tables too. They were exemplary, by the way- keeping us updated as to when we could expect to be seated and tactfully presenting bills to tablehoggers.
A brief menu is presented on two chalkboards and items crossed through as they sell out. The staff- almost exclusively Spanish- operate silkily in a confined space, each knowing their role and performing it with a minimum of fuss. It’s quietly impressive to see them lead this automatic, intricate dance of service and preparation in tiny open kitchen.
The long, hot wait (I admit to squeezing over to the air conditioning unit more than a few times) ended with us ordering a few tapas amid a steady stream of Estrella Damm. First up were scalding hot patatas bravas, the deeply smoky tomato sauce a piquant contrast to the rich mayonnaise.
Next up- a plate of calamares fritos, the squid pieces (not those ubiquitous rings but bite-sized chunks, tentacles and body) in an extra-light seasoned batter needing only a squeeze of lemon to make them sing.
If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know how important croquetas are to me, for all sorts of reasons. Tonight’s were made of wild mushrooms (admittedly a new one on me: given the choice I’d always opt for jamón, or seafood, or bacalao) and were a little salty for my taste but still full of flavour and filled with a velvety béchamel.
Next up was the highlight of the evening. (The eating part of it, anyway: I was talking to our waitress and babbling on about José Pizarro being a ‘hero’ of mine, and she said, ‘Oh- well, if you turn around you can tell him yourself. I’ll just introduce you…’)
Which was nice.
Ibérico pork fillet, Pizarro’s signature dish: it sounds counter intuitive- audacious, even- to serve pork rare- and this is rare- but this is no mere caprice. This is a restaurateur putting his trust wholly in his suppliers. Every soft, luscious, aromatic mouthful of this pork was (a) the kind of food that makes you profoundly glad you eat meat, and (b) destined to linger long in the memory. You just knew it, immediately.
Later, as we ambled homeward in the small hours, that was what we kept coming back to, time and time again. It truly was one of those, ‘we’ll always remember this’ moments, something that, when tasted again, will always fix you back in that place and that time. A revelation. Life-affirming, even.
Marinated in rosemary, bay leaf and mint, all bathed in the deep green of Extremaduran olive oil, it needed the briefest meeting with the plancha before slicing and the ruby red slivers were dressed with crushed flakes of sea salt and laced with more olive oil.
Forget needing a knife: you could part this with a cutting remark. Last year Pizarro told the Guardian, “The trick on serving rare pork is the supplier. The Ibérico pork I serve at Pizarro and José is of seriously high quality and out of all my suppliers that one is the relationship I probably nurture the most. These pigs are reared on acorns and are thoroughly spoilt.”
It shows. Oh boy, does it show.
A final plate of fresh anchovies (boquerones) in vinaigrette, salty and meaty and fishy all at once- saw us out into the night. Sated, we walked the first few stops home, through Potter’s Field, down Queen’s Walk and over a luminous Tower Bridge, knowing we had eaten something truly special. Remarkable. Unforgettable.
So, with apologies to TS Eliot:
‘Over the Bridge the men come and go
Talking of Ibérico…’
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.