In the shadow of the shard a neighbourhood tapas bar is enjoying great success. Measured, certainly on my visit, by those being turned away at the door, and later discovering that one meaty Bellota ham lasts just two days. So lucky to have José Pizarro, former head chef of the Brindisa restaurants, living in the area, locals and those who enjoy brilliant tapas are now reaping the rewards of the first José in Bermondsey Street.
Don’t confuse this with the hundreds of tapas eateries in London knocking out mediocre dishes. This is something else, it wouldn’t look out of place in any Spanish city and it’s the kind Spaniards come to rely on at the end of their street to meet up with friends without the formality of a full blown sit down meal.
The space is a delight, serving food, wine and sherry. You cant just pop in for a glass of wine, it’s not big enough for starters I’d say just enough room to swing that black hoofed Bellota, and their license does not allow it. So it’s strictly tapas and drink. The space though has been used to full effect and I marvel that four chefs manage to work in such a confined area.
The menus – one for food, the other wines selected by Master of Wines Tim Atkin and Jo Ahearne – are small but perfectly formed. Sherry from Jerez and Malaga, white, red, rose and Cava all chosen with care to match the dishes on offer. Sherry is for life and not just for Christmas, and my opinion of the drink changed after going to a wedding in a Vejer Bodegas. So, I appreciate a good glass of fino and so should you. Here, you don’t need any wine knowledge whatsoever, Valentina Cesario guided me through drink and food coupling and I started off with not one but two glasses of sherry. La Gitana is a Spanish favourite dry as a bone and from the house of Hidalgo, a well-respected house in the Coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Extremely pale with a notable sea-saltiness. The Pastrana, however, won me over, aged over 12 years in American oak barrels; this is light, crisp, with a salty tang.
I tried everything they could throw at me, all my pictures are half-sized tapas, but that’s simply because I wanted to try everything and I was eating alone.
The smoked beef, is a welcome dish for those who aren’t keen on pork.
The croquetas (£6.00) were small balls of hammy cheesiness. No one overpowering flavour, delivered in a light breadcrumb coating. Each day, a different flavour, cheese and crab.
I had to pinch myself when the ham (£9.00) arrived. José buys prize-winning pork and ham from Manuel Maldonado in Extremadura; it’s the best ham in the world because it comes from the best pig in the world. Fed on acorns from pure breed parents and cured for a minimum of twenty-four months you really can taste no finer. My razor thin strips of marbled ham coupled with the red Cal Pla Garnacha was exquisite.
The next arrival was peas, poached egg, migas and chorizo (£6.00). I think the picture does it justice, onion, crouton and chorizo fried to a perfect crisp, sweet oozing garlic and a golden yolk that brought it all together.
France has ratatouille, Italy has Ciambotta and Spain has Pisto. It’s a traditional summer vegetable dish, with a deep tomato base to which aubergine, courgette, onion, garlic and pepper are added. José serves his with a well-fried duck egg, which gives the dish a welcome crunch and the yolk, when broken, cooks a little from the heat of the stew below.
Just when I think the dishes can’t get any better the sea bream arrives. The daily specials board is the measure of any good Spanish tapas bar and today’s Sea Bream with Orange and Black Olives (£7.50) stands the test. A perfectly cooked sea bream fillet crunches as the sweetness of soft oranges strike out against the saltiness of the black olives and fish. No pith in sight as the oranges have been handled by the orange peeling fairies.
Another blackboard special, squid and romesco sauce (£7.50) is another triumph. A terracotta dish is full of delicious squid topped with a piquillo pepper and almond Romesco sauce. Not whizzed in a blender to a pulp but enough bite and crunch to determine the ingredients.
It’s transparent José has picked his staff well, he tells me when we get to chat later, that without his staff he’d be nothing. An unpretentious man who clearly knows the worth of those he employs and his head chef Javier Capella (formerly of the now closed El Faro) is no exception.
I ended my meal on the most magnificent high. The final special I was to try was the Pluma Iberica (£9.00) cooked ‘poco hecho’. But I had to question whether medium rare pork, was normal. The provenance and the fact the pig is fed on 100% acorns was enough to convince me. It’s a fatty cut of Ibérico pork from between the top loin and the presa, served on a plump piquillo pepper. There are no adjectives to do this dish justice, just try it.
I didn’t try the albondigas, they looked just how Spanish meatballs are meant to, nor did I try the Padron peppers. I think those were the only two dishes I didn’t get around to devouring but I have since been back and can confirm they are worth ordering.
I’ll let you know if the restaurant’s as good as the tapas bar when it opens.