Sabor Review – A tapas titan in London

I fondly recall the many nights perched on the bar at the original Barrafina on Frith Street that originally launched in 2006. I loved it, and the brothers behind it was Sam and Eddie Hart who were inspired by Cap Pep, a famous no bookings counter style tapas restaurant in Barcelona. Nieves Barragon, the head chef, arrived from from Bilbao over 10 years ago and started off as a kitchen porter at Simply Nico’s. This is where she met Frenchman Jean-Philippe Patruno who went on to be the Head Chef at the Hart brothers first Spanish restaurant Fino in Fitzrovia. He summoned her help, and before you know it, she became the head chef and then helped the brothers begin the Barrafina journey. This is where she met her now business partner José Etura. I remember him, shepherding the throng of hungry patrons wanting to get into queue every time I was there. You’ll often hear that it would be a 2 hour wait. Now there are countless restaurants in London who don’t take bookings, perhaps they were the pioneers back then? It’s backed one of the most polished outfits in the industry, JKS, who also back Kitchen Table, Bao, Hoppers, Berenjak, Xu and Brigadiers to name but a few, it’s no surprise that they destined for very good things. Together they bring regional Spanish fare to our tables, from the Basque Country, Castile and Galicia. They also won their site at Heddon St through cook-off against 5 other restaurants! Wood fired suckling pig Castile-style, Galician pulpo a la feira (stewed octopus), and Castilian caldeira fish stew is what won them the brief. The hat-trick of dishes that features on the menu today.

When you get inside, the restaurant is split across three sections; a bar to your right and a counter-top tapas restaurant to your left, and going up the spiral stairs, you have the asador where wood-fired oven action takes place – this is more Basque-Catalan inspired. Every section has their unique menu which carousels with the seasons, it feels like three different Spanish regions and their cosines defined under one roof.

Here is the leading lady herself, at the heart of the matter interacting with her chefs and of course the customers.

Seafood is delivered daily and and it seems that they’re so confident in their produce, they have to show it off. It goes without saying that it all looks tantalising.

We start with the olives a la “andaluza” £3.50 with a bottle of full bodied pasión de bobal £34.

Then came the piquilo croquettes £6 with a roux deep in lusciousness and an intense sweet flavour from the peppers. Lashings of grated manchego – a mild nutty cheese that tastes similar to parmesan, in my eyes at least add another layer of flavour.

Artichoke hearts £6.50 are griddled until just golden, sour gilda’s and a dot of black garlic aioli makes you feel like you’re in San Sebastian.

They used one of the most prized parts of the chicken in their sandwich, the oyster, breadcrumbed and fried until golden. Two birds sacrificed themselves for this snack for which I am grateful for. The roll had a lovely chew, it was sour dough if I’m not mistaken, and it gets a slathering of aioli, baby gem give their crunch. The chicken bocadillo £7 is a mighty sandwich.

Camerones fritos £6.50 are fried shrimp barely the size of a pinky finger tip. They’re lightly coated and fried until a crisp, then it’s topped with a paprika crusted fried egg with a yolk which is the very definition of golden. It’s a clear definition of why fried things are virtuous for the tongue, I fell in love with this dish in its entirety.

Gambas croquetas £6 came along with a roux that could be the close cousin of the piquillo croquetas, but chopped prawns feature, their pertness have crunch and sweetness to their core.

Pintxo murono £5 was a skewer of milk fed lamb in a pool of good olive oil and a dusting of ras el hanout, which means “head of the shop” in Arabic. The spice blend can be made up cumin, oregano, coriander, turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, cayenne, peppercorn and cinnamon. That’s a lot of excitement on a plate.

So onto “the counter”.

The one dish I wanted to try was their arroz (rice). This version “arroz con salmonette” £14.50 was a plate of mood lifting tongue nectar that I just couldn’t get enough of. Every grain of rice absorbed the liquid it was cooked in, a lustful stock that started the day as a huge bubbling pot and finished as a cupful. We were the beneficiary’s of that cup. It was complex with layers of sweetness, accentuated umami and the heft of deep savouriness.

Iberian duck breast with tarragon ajoblanco £14.50 was big in flavour; protein from the bird’s breast had a nice tension and savoury depth that developed more as you chewed. Ajoblanco is typically a cold soup, so I assume that the side salad of radish, grape and apple was a rendition of it. It comes with an impact of dark sauce, the sort that would make your roast dinner sing.

During my second visit, I started at the bar again. I’m not complaining.

Our waitress at the bar was hilarious, she was cheeky, cheerful lass and we felt a little disappointed that we didn’t have her for the rest of the night.

Olives a la “andaluza” £3.50

Piquillo coquetas £6

Gambas croquetas £6.

If you like lardo, then you’ll like this version £8.50 with anchovies and picos slicked in olive oil. Picos are the teeny little breadsticks full of crunch.

Camerones fritos £6.50 – not ordering it would be a sin against food.

To the counter!

Chorizo tortilla £8.50 is the kind of omelette so synonymous with chef Barragán, it’s a welcome presence of silkiness, a full on assault of runny egg, potato, aioli and smokey Spanish sausage.

Arroz con salmonete £14.50 came with a beautifully cooked piece of fresh gurnard; skin crispy from virtuous interaction it had with high heat, the flesh was quite taut as is the nature of the fish. The whole dish was stand out. Come for here for this and if anyone is reading this from the kitchen – keep cooking it.

So onto the lobster which was on the specials blackboard £37.80. It was simply cooked with high heat, butter, olive oil and a good pinch of salt. It is a winning hat-tilt to how fresh shellfish should be cooked.

So onto the oxtail £14.50. All I can say is that it’s a wholly seductive piece of slow cookery. It’s dark and intense, with protein long cooked until it falls apart, covered in a butch sauce with a mirror shine full of intent. If that wasn’t enough, then there was a side of potato dauphinoise and parsley-onion salad. Come here for this too.

Chargrilled chicken £10.50 taken from the specials board was skilfully done. Crispy skinned thigh with puréed corn sauce, but the dish was the weak link, by no means was it bad though, just overshadowed by the rest.

Goat’s cheese ice cream with liquorice sauce £4.50 was strangely alluring, I thought I wouldn’t like it from my fear of the funk found in the animal. It was refreshing and nice to eat.

What stood out were the bombs tres chocolates £8. Three piping hot dough balls coated in white, milk and dark chocolate with plenty of crushed sugary nuts. After the first bite I was already plotting to come back. Thankfully, the desert stayed on the menu, so it bloody should.

La cuenta, por favor!


Adiós!

Visit number tres..

It’s easy to see the lustre and the reason why they have the pan con cecina £4.50 on the menu. Salty cured ham, tomato that exists for the sweetness and a sour dough to pour over. My belly beckons for this type of food.

Camerones fritos £6.50 – they never get boring.

The same goes for the piquillo and prawn croquettas £6.

On the specials we tried the John Dory fritura £17.80. The fish was expertly dismantled, it’s flesh cut into pieces, battered and then deep fried with its skeleton. There’s a lot to be said about frying fish bones, nibbling on them as snacks is good judgement of nothing goes to waste – every part of the animal should be enjoyed.

The star of the show; the arroz con salmonete £14.50 with gurnard. We all descended on it in a feeding frenzy.

The chorizo tortilla £8.50

The oxtail £16.50 is a kind in its own. What a dish.

What was new this time around was the milk fed lamb sweetbreads £12.50. All I can say is that they were flawless, you can eat the type of food to take the world off your shoulders. What we got were pan roasted goodness, cooked in a viscous chicken jus full of intensity – there was so much savoury depth and lip sticking pleasure. For good measure you’ll also get some crispy kale on top.

Crispy quail £12.50 arrive golden skinned and pink in the middle – another delight. We found ourselves using our fingers to to gnaw, dredging the pieces into the herby oil and romesco. No one else went for the chicory so I can grabbed it and dunked it into the sauces.

The camerones – I can’t do without them. I perch at “the bar” whilst I wait for my lunch date drinking rose.

Onto “the counter”.

The lunch date.

Feeling flush we went for the amaren reserva £95, a full bodied, broad shouldered Spaniard that slipped down nicely. Our expert sommelier was someone that used to serve me back at when she worked at Barrafina.

The perfect pan con cecina £4.50

The prawn and piquillo croquetas are no longer available, instead we get squid ink £6.80 and jamón £6 which good but not as compelling.

They have also snubbed out the arroz con salmonete for arroz negro £16.50. It’s a big plate of squid ink rice that is as black as the night. It is a delectable thing full of umami with tender pieces of just caramelised squid and a dollop of mustard coloured aioli. There is always a risk that if you take away something which is so good, the successor will never be as good, as nice as it was, this was a case in point.

Chorizo tortilla £8.50 – yes please. I honestly believe though that the omelette is that good. it doesn’t need the aioli.

Milk fed lamb sweetbreads £12.50, the squidgy pieces of joyous animal that occurs under crispy kale and a pool of outrageously good chicken jus with the odd caper swimming in it.

The presa iberica £9.50 comes from the top of the pork loin, some divine swine action from animals that only eats acorns, roaming freely in the Spanish countryside. It comes with a relentlessly deep sauce that belongs to anything edible in my eyes. Herby mojo verde brings freshness to the proceedings.

I couldn’t resist another…

Grilled quail £12.50 with Jerusalem artichokes were also irresistible.

This time around, the five of us sat upstairs in the “asador”. The only part of the restaurant where you can book. Expect high quality ingredients which are made to sing with rustic style Basque cookery.

Seeing that we were in the Basque mood, we ordered some Flysch txacoli £40. Txacoli is a young, often few weeks old white wine that is aerated from a hight for extra freshness. More of my chat about the stuff can be seen by clicking here – come back to that later, as there’s more good stuff coming. Press play for the action:

The txuletón gallego £85 is a galacian rib of beef, a form of rare breed moo from the North Western parts of Spain that live a good life up to 8 years or even up to 17 years before they hit our plates. Of course we had to get some, see the cook of it below.

Cecina asador £14.50 were luxurious paper thin folds mouth dissolving cured Galacian cow presented on a cross section of tree.

Monkfish tempura £15 with zippy mayo were also exceptionally well made.

Octopus £14.80 showered with paprika and olive oil tastes like it’s been rendered down for a long while until the tentacles barely need any effort to enjoy.

Pigs ears £6.50 are not just brilliant snacks, but a campaign should be launched for them to feature in every pub in England to be sold with beer.

Morchilla de Burgos txistorra £7.50 were discs of crumbly black pudding, wizard sleeve piquillo peppers and Basque chipolatas.

We shared half a Sogovian suckling pig £90, it crucially it lived up to its promise. It was brought over in a large clay dish with our server chopping the prized animal into sections using just a plate. The highlight was the festival of shattering crispy skin upon contact with the plate, but the flesh was soft and on the verge of breakdown. A clay pot of subtle mint sauce gives the oink some lift.

Here is the txuletón gallego £85 that Galacian cow dry aged for 48 days. It was a glorious steak, the kitchen definitely know the ways of the cow and how to cook it.

Patatas fritas £6 was a worthy addition to the sides.

As were the tomato salads £6.50.

Our waiter from Venezuela managed to persuade the powers that be to let us go downstairs and finish off with the bombs tres chocolates. The chaps I was with couldn’t stop waxing lyrical at how good they were.

I was even invited in to see how they’re made.

Verdict

When did I go? May 2018, Aug 2018, Nov 2019, Feb 2019, May 2019
The damage: Expect to pay £50/75 per head with booze 
The good: Come here for spirit lifting Spanish food that makes London a better place right now. Everything seems to make a case for itself and plates just go back so clean that the dishwasher is made redundant. The arroz salmonete, pan con cecina, camerones fritos, oxtail and sweetbreads are miracles on a plate that can’t be missed.
The bad: Having done the asador upstairs, I doubt it’s a place I’d do again especially when the counter and bar gives me all the thrills I need. I’ll happily point people to either though.
Rating: 5/5
Would I go again? Plotting to do so frequently!
Address: 35-37 Heddon St, Mayfair, London W1B 4BR
Web: https://www.saborrestaurants.co.uk

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