I admit, I tend to be little trepidatious when hearing of an authentic Spanish Tapas restaurant outside of Spain. I think of “authentic” Mexican food at Chipotle, or “traditional” Chinese food at “Big Bowl” – essentially, complete shams.
A tapa means more than a small plate of food you can hold in one hand while imbibing various vinous beverages in the other. To me, authentic tapas must resemble commonly found recipes in Spain, such as patatas bravas, tortilla de patatas or croquettes. Not to say that I’m not open to innovation and creativity, but when a menu claims it serves authentic Spanish tapas, and I read “spicy black beans with grilled calamari” or “fried plantains sprinkled in rock salt” on the menu, I want to scream. Why? In short, because it’s not Spanish! You may find it on a Spanish menu in Central or South America, but it’s not a traditional dish from Spain.
What else qualifies a Spanish tapas restaurant as authentic? Although not a requirement, I like cohesiveness. If a restaurant claims to feature Catalan food, I assume they will have pan con tomate, butifarra and spinach with pinenuts, at the very least. And if I’m lucky, the interior design will highlight the works of Miro or Gaudi, while music from Albert Pla, Carles Sabater i Hernández or Ailyn flow through the restaurant. What I don’t want to find are Basque tapas, American music and French interior design. Call me a purist, but I take truth in advertising seriously. Side note: I’m not admitting to the fact that most Spanish tapas bars pump out American pop songs. Let me live in my traditional happy place.
Fortunately, both of the Spanish tapas restaurants in London, Barcelona Tapas and Casa Brindisa, surpassed my expectations. Claiming to be “authentic” representations of what you’d find in Spain, I walked away feeling rather impressed with not only their food, but their very real connection to Spain.
Launched in 1991 by father and son team, Martin and Davis Dalmau, Barcelona Tapas is chain of brightly colored, Gaudi-styled restaurants scattered across London. Snuggled deep underground on Botolph Street, the restaurant I visited offered a sense of airy playfulness with its festive citrus walls, brightly colored mosaics and oddly paired black and white checkered floors, giving it a stylish diner feel.
The food menu, long and expansive, felt more like a religious tomb to tapas than a simple lunch menu, boasting of over 50 dishes from across Spain. From the famed Galician Octopus drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled in paprika (a dish I truly wish I tasted – as it’s a true litmus test of a good tapas bar) to Catalan Habas served with butifarra negra and broad beans, their menu is as diverse as Spain itself. We tasted a handful of tapas from their menu including the tortilla de patatas, which was firm, savory and flavorful. Fortunately, this was not the case. The pimiento de patrons, a small and occasionally spicy sauteed green pepper, came alive in my mouth with a touch of sweetness behind a meaty and juicy texture. This is a personal favorite of mine, and one I take seriously when enjoying tapas! And of course, we licked our fingers on their famed Jamon Iberico, a high quality cured ham that is equivalent to entering the gates of heaven. From the small array of tapas I shared among friends, they were all served in a simple, no frills manner, highlighting only the quality of the ingredients and the authenticity of its preparation.
The wine list was of equal quality, offering an enormous selection of Spanish wines ranging from the smallest of quality regions to the largest, each and every one available by the glass. This, my friends, is a major selling point because I can’t even find this in Spain! From Txacoli in the north to Sherry in the south, and from wines made of Monastrell in the east to Alvarino in the west, there is something for everyone. My only caveat being that although their house wine is perfectly fine, with so many interesting wines to try by the glass, I wouldn’t waste your time.
And as for prices, across the board, both the food and wine menu are completely reasonable. Where you might be a little offset is their informal and abrupt style of service. Waiters are fast and furious, and expect you to call their attention if you need them, as opposed to being waited on hand and foot. But if you want authenticity, this style of service is as real as you’ll find anywhere in Spain, typically cultivating the art of patience and humor. Just repeat the mantra, “no pasa nada”.
Casa Brindisa is an entirely different creature. Although similar to Barcelona Tapas in that it too is a chain with restaurants peppered across London, it felt more artsy and rustic in its expression. Visiting the South Kensington location right before the dramatic lunch rush, I spent a good hour chatting with José Pizarro, who runs the umbrella company, Tapas Brindisa, named after the Spanish foods import company set up by his colleague Monika Linton. Inquiring about his philosophy and ambitions for the restaurant, he replied, “I want simplicity! I want to offer people a chance to taste real everyday dishes across Spain.” Let’s be clear, I’ve never seen or heard of his famed deep fried Monte Enebro goat’s cheese drizzled with orange blossom honey, anywhere in Spain, but I’m not complaining. Any dish that leaves a permanent grin on my face as I drudged my way through the rain soaked streets of London that afternoon is a friend of mine!
I might also suggest his homemade Gordal olives stuffed with orange and marjoram, a lovely and bright flavor that would have paired beautifully with Manzanilla – though not bad with my glass of Albarinho in hand. Here too you can find a wide range of cured Iberian jamon, spanish cheese, and traditional tapas such as the patatas bravas and croquettes, as well as heartier dishes like the Iberian pork tenderloin with Oloroso sherry and roasted apple. My only major complaint for the food was its liberal application of salt. Although I’m someone who should have a salt lick attached to my chest, as I adore this beautiful and perfect mineral, it has been known to kill a dish or three.
The ambiance was warm, yet minimalist, with simple wooden tables, low lighting and an overall casual feeling. Follow the stairs down below and you’ll encounter a quaint, little deli in front of the equally charming loos.
The wine list is equally diverse, with selections from across the great peninsula. Selected wines by varietal are offered by the glass at extremely reasonable prices. In regards to service, because I was sitting at the bar, I didn’t experience it in its full glory, but from what little I saw, servers were courteous, attentive but gave off a slightly haughty, self-important air when interacting with customers. Then again, the bartender did perform a impromptu Flamenco piece, which was either his form of flirting or simply a moment of pure musical expression. Wherever his toe tapping, hand clapping, inspiration came from, I thoroughly enjoyed his rather unexpected performance!
Are both of these restaurants worthy of your time? Yes! But if you’re keen to experience these exquisite flavors firsthand, why not join us in Spain for a customized food and wine tour designed for you?!
15 St Botolph Street (ent Middlesex St)
Tel 087 1971 7221
7-9 Exhibition Road
Tel 020 7590 0008
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