London has some fantastic tapas, you’ll no doubt agree. What it doesn’t have a huge amount of, however, is ‘proper’ tapas bars; the kind where you drop in spontaneously then spend an evening drinking, nattering and grazing. Food arrives as things on toast or bread; things draped over one another and drizzled with olive oil; things fried until golden brown with a wobbly, just-set centre. When you’re in a tapas bar there’s always someone who pipes up with a comment like, ‘we need more places like this in London… now, if this were Seville, there’d be tapas bars on every corner’ – and they’re right. Great tapas places are to some areas of Spain what the fromagerie or boulangerie is to Paris – just a part of life but also not taken for granted.
Are tapas bars best enjoyed on British soil anyway? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want them. So, having spent the best part of 200 words banging on about them we’re now going to tell you that tapas is only a small part of Nieves Barragán’s Sabor – one little corner in fact – but the fact that this corner feels so much like Spain tells you all you need to know about the place as a whole. We don’t want to use the word authentic (because really, what does that even mean when it comes to food?) but just know that this feels like the real deal.
You’ll have to wait in this area for your seat at the main dining counter because that’s the way of things in these places. Grab a stool, furnish yourself with a sherry and get stuck into the snack selection on the chalkboard – you’re encouraged to throw your napkins on the floor afterwards like they do in Spain but of course, no one does because they’re British. We ate some spectacular queso fresco (fresh cheese) on toast with a lavish fluffy hairdo of black truffle, then crisp, greaseless shrimp croquetas and a plate of lardo, anchovies and olive oil that led to an actual, eyes-rolling-back-into-the-head moment.
The restaurant is a gob-gaping beauty. As we’re shown to our spots at the marble counter it’s a wonder we don’t trip up for gawping at the tiles, the immaculately dressed staff and the general kitchen bustle. It’s just so fun, isn’t it? Sitting right in front of the kitchen, being handed your food by the person who cooked it. We immediately order the tortilla, something which has always been peerless at Barrafina (where Nieves was executive chef for 10 years) and it’s… nearly great. A little underseasoned, truth be told but c’mon, they’d just opened. There’s still plenty of golden yolk oozing from the centre and the general feeling that you could absolutely, 100% never make a tortilla this good at home.
Various plates are ordered and consumed and it’s all solid. Not mind-blowing but proficient, satisfying cooking with really excellent produce. And then comes the steak. Some might argue a £25 Galician sirloin as a final course between two people on a Wednesday lunchtime is excessive but oh, they would be wrong. It’s glorious. Galician beef comes from very old cows, you see, and it’s dry-aged too so what you end up with is a feral funk that whispers to places deep within, like a private conversation between the steak and your soul.
There are desserts and coffees and lots of contented smiles and not just from us – it’s buzzing. That’s what’s so appealing about this kind of restaurant: the clatter and sizzle from the open kitchen, the chatter of a room full of people who know they’re part of something, the collective hum of merriment. It’s the opposite of starched linen and tinkling wine glasses. It’s such a riot, in fact, we manage to stretch lunch to three hours. Soon, the asador upstairs will open for business bringing a whole new dimension to this whirlwind tour of Spain with oven roasted suckling pigs, and octopus. Go. Enjoy. Think of all those years when you settled for bland potatoes bravas and cold chorizo and laugh your smug, contented head off.
Sabor, 35-37 Heddon Street, W1B 4BR
Pricing: from £2.50-9.50 for tapas and £8-15 for larger dishes. Expect to pay around £50 for a meal for two with a couple of drinks.