Years ago during a particularly festive Pride weekend, we found ourselves outside the original Barrafina in Soho, eying two stools at the counter about to be vacated. Never one to miss an opportunistic moment, I dived right in before anybody could lay claim to the covers, avoiding eye contact until we’d ordered drinks – surely a signal of our uncontested ownership. What followed was a happy afternoon eating the most amazing razor clams and arroz mariscos, sipping Codorniu’s unmatched pinot noir cava, watching the colourful cacophony of pride revellers having a gay old time (no pun intended).
Since then, my relationship with Barrafina has been a fleeting, if not casual one. When I happen to be in the neighbourhood and am feeling peckish, I’ll stop to grab a quick drink and see how long the wait is for a spot at the counter. Most days, this will inevitably be anywhere between 20 minutes to a full-on hour, as the restaurant applies a strict no reservations policy at all its outlets. That of course doesn’t hold valid if you’re booking the private dining room at their Adelaide Street location, as a former colleague and fellow foodie did for us last month for a ‘boys night out’ reunion of sorts.
A bright and boisterous dining space, the Adelaide street branch is a short walk from Charing Cross station or Covent Garden, done up in the signature chrome and red upholstered bar stools. An ode to the simplicity of the Catalan inspired cuisine served-up, the restaurant consists of a no-frills marble-topped counter running the entire length of the restaurant, overlooking the open plan kitchen. Unlike the limited 23 covers in the postage stamp-sized Frith street branch, the space here is modern, airy and can accommodate a far greater number of diners. The theme of simplicity carries on downstairs, where there’s a private dining room with a small reception space to congregate for idle chat and aperitifs prior to dinner.
We were welcomed by the unmistakable aroma of Iberian cooking, and a choice of cerveza or the Hart Brothers’ own brand Manzanilla as a welcome aperitif. I went for the sherry, which was pale in colour and eye-wateringly dry, simultaneously refined and salty – an acquired taste I’d say. Smiling wait staff weaved their way through the 20-strong group of us, offering a selection of warm and cold canapés. The roasted quail legs were succulent and tender, and practically disappeared before I could get my hands on seconds. We had classic tortilla and pimientos, which tasted fluffy and juicy, alongside traditional jamón ibérico. And once the canapés were in full swing, I actually found myself developing a newfound appreciation for Manzanilla.
Once we adjourned to the dining table, we were regaled with a parade of Iberian classics. The private dining space and wine cellar is atmospheric, and in stark contrast to the mood upstairs, dimly lit by candles and occasional lighting. To appeal to all palates, our organizing host had wisely chosen a selection of vegetarian, seafood and meat-based tapas dishes. The crab croquetas were excellent, soft and gooey on the inside with a crumbly outer shell, as were the grilled queen scallops. It would have been very hard to object to the pimientos de Padrón, although I wasn’t a huge fan of the artichoke with alioli dressing. Ditto for the slow-cooked lamb with rosemary potatoes. Rounding things up was the classic zarzuela, with lots of juicy crustaceans and fish in a hearty sauce. Though a little on the messy side, it worked a treat with the free-flowing albariño. We ended proceedings with dessert; a hearty and delicious milhojas with layers of flaky pastry and custard. I must have enjoyed the food immensely, as in my excitement, I completely forgot to take any photos of the dishes – cardinal sin I know!
As a matter of coincidence, the weekend following our night-out, Barrafina was awarded the ‘Best UK Restaurant’ accolade by the discerning readers of Observer Food Monthly. While I would place my experience at Barrafina that evening right up there with other modern tapas delights like Eyre Brothers, I probably would have opted for a slightly different choice of menu. Perhaps one with a greater emphasis on seafood, just so I could indulge in chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho’s signature dish – those glorious razor clams in garlic, white wine and olive oil. A winner.
Restaurant – 8/10
Experience – 8/10