I had read and heard really good things about Barrafina. And it has two major pluses for me: it serves Spanish tapas and it’s in Soho. I LOVE Soho. And I love Spanish tapas too! But my experience with tapas in England has been mixed. To be quite frank, good tapas are in Spain. I think the disappointment with tapas in England stems from two main things: an adulteration of the original to fit the local taste (which is a well-known phenomenon across many foreign cuisines in this country) and a lack of ingredients as they come in those countries – ripened under much more sunshine and considerably higher temperatures throughout the year. The tomatoes here are not the same, the garlic is not the same, the onions, the potatoes, you get the idea. And so the food can’t really taste the same. Especially if we are talking about food that is simple. A lot of the dishes you eat in Spain (and Italy, for example) are prepared with only a handful of ingredients. You can, however, get very close here and there are a few examples in London. Barrafina is undoubtedly one of them. And Barrafina is more than that. It has elevated the humble tapa to something a bit more glitzy and upmarket, and still managed to keep it delicious.
When I heard it had earned a Michelin star this year, I must confess I was almost disappointed. In my mind, a star would complicate things, bring in crowds and bump up the prices. I didn’t need a star to know I wanted to eat there and now the fact that Barrafina is the place to go to eat good Spanish tapas wasn’t a secret anymore.
Still, I was determined and finally got my chance, and as expected it was full and came with a 1h30m waiting queue.
It ended up being less than that and the queuing is made bearable by the small dishes you can nibble on and the wine you can sip while you wait. And good conversation, if you are lucky enough.
We sat down after nibbling on some ham croquetas and toast with gently smoked alioli, adequately accompanied by a cold bottle of crisp white wine.
Even though you are waiting, you are well looked after by the waiters and your experience really starts when you get served the first nibble. I knew by looking at my watch that we had been standing for over an hour but I can honestly say it didn’t feel like that long.
Barrafina is small (23 seating places, to be precise) and is made up of an L-shape counter with stools around it. I assume it is meant to evoke the atmosphere you get in a typical relaxed Spanish tapas bar. Many, if not all, the waiters and chefs are Spanish and there are tens of them, moving frantically in the small space behind and around the counter. The place is noisy, alive with energy, vibrant. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves and eat GOOD food. We’re all in it together.
The menu is solid, well-thought through and pretty authentic. To complement it, there are daily specials mainly made up of seafood. I couldn’t help myself ogling the glistening intense red ‘carabineros’ sleeping on the ice behind the counter. What handsome creatures they are! They also had langoustines and other types of ‘gamba’ (prawn). For a moment I got transported to my own country’s seafood houses and forgot I was in central London.
From the menu, it was hard to choose as I wanted to eat EVERYTHING. I ended up asking for one of my favourite foods: octopus.
It was divine as expected, soft, properly cooked and served with salty juicy capers for a perfect combination. My friend wanted more croquetas as she totally fell in love with them and we both shared the classic tortilla. If you were expecting a yellow-tinged somewhat stiff omelete with chunks of potato inside, think again. This one was oozy and sweet from the caramelised onions, dark, intense and absolutely delicious!
And so were the chickpeas with spinach. Lovely and soft, they came coated in a deep brown jus and I could not stop eating them.
To finish, a wonderfully moist ‘Torta de Santiago‘ – an almond tart typical from the Spanish Galicia region, north of Portugal – was the perfect end to a perfect meal.
Barrafina is definitely worth a visit or two, it’s a Spanish gem in the heart of Soho. You need to come with the mindset that you are probably going to wait a while before you can sit. Just relax and think of your wait as an opportunity for a good chat, a few glasses of wine and some Spanish nibbles, albeit standing. Time will fly if the company is good, and mine was the best.
Where: London, Soho
Type: Restaurant, Michelin starred
Occasion: Lunch and dinner
Rating: 5 stars
Would I go again? Yes!