When I expressed an interest in visiting Barrafina this week, I was met with an unexpected lack of enthusiasm. I was told that the place, though still popular, was not as good as it used to be, and that its head chef, a certain Nieves Machacho, was plying her trade elsewhere. If I wanted to experience her cooking, then I should instead make my way to the newly opened Sabor in Mayfair.
But the thought of Mayfair made me shudder. For the price of a meal up there you usually expect to pay significantly more than is conventional, are surrounded by suited, finely dressed individuals, and feel uncomfortably self-conscious of your pathetic bank balance. While the food around there is respectable, I do not think it worth the fuss and the expenditure when there are enough other, more convenient places to visit around town.
This is not to say that Barrafina is the most affordable at my current state of affairs. It is one of the more expensive places you will visit on my recommendation. But I will say there is an endearing informality about the place, a sense of sophisticated ease that is enriched by stellar ingredients, great cooking and a cheerful atmosphere.
I am a little disappointed though. I wish I had been there to experience Barrafina in its supposed prime, when Fay Maschler deemed it worthy of a five-star review, and the myriad other writers that came after who spoke wonders about the gastronomic contributions of the enchanting tapas bar. But sadly, as is the nature of fate and circumstance, I am too late and would thus have to settle with whatever, or rather, whoever, is donning the principle chef’s jacket at the famed restaurant.
When a chef leaves somewhere well-established, the place always seems to take a hit whether it be subtle or indeed, fatal. And sometimes rightly so. When someone new takes over, without any fanfare or influential reputation, customers tend to be more negative than positive even before tasting their food. To impress, said chef must do better than his or her predecessor to sway the sensibilities of those predisposed to disappointment.
In the case of Barrafina, the change has been far from catastrophic. The general consensus seems to be that while the food is still fantastic, Machacho’s cuisine is a tier above – the classic nostalgic idealism at work here, but I get it, I understand.
The restaurant was bubbling like a hot pot of stew when I arrived on a Saturday afternoon. The sun was bright outside, women in sundresses were drinking rose and nibbling on croquetas, men in shorts and sunglasses smoking cigars outside over plates of clam and prawn shells, and you could see through the windows of Barrafina, a hodge podge of heads, bodies, and wine glasses like a cartoon sketch of a crowd inside.
After waiting about forty minutes in the queue, a kind camaraderie started to develop between all of us. Regulars, on recognising newbie nervousness, would immediately step in to give their bright-eyed recommendations and speak about their previous experiences, others would chime in with their little bits too, and eventually everybody knew with some clarity what they were in for, feeling ever so slightly more at ease than when they first entered.
I am not exaggerating. A couple who I learned were visiting from Taiwan, and who seemed utterly bemused by the Spanish nomenclature on the menu, were saved by a well-informed Galician lady in front of them. The group behind me, newly introduced over mutual sighs of hunger and impatience compared favourite dishes, and talked about their trips to Spain as if they were at a high school reunion. A quiet man who could not seem to grab the attention of a waitress, had her pointed towards him by a tanned gent at the edge of the bar. It was a great atmosphere to be in and before anyone knew it most of us were seated.
In keeping with the contemporary, Barrafina contributes its own brand of dine-at-the-bar hospitality. I suppose it can be quite convenient for people dining on their own or as a couple, but with a restaurant as popular as this one, with groups in need of places, it becomes slightly inconvenient. But the kind of immersive experience offered at this tapas bar does pay dividends, for to watch chefs and service staff behind the bar hoot and shout and brush and shimmy past each other in an attempt to maintain speedy and efficient service is theatrical and exciting. There is a lot going on, and it is easy to be distracted by waiters explaining dishes, cooks sizzling meat on the grill, or the man at the pass putting finishing touches on to an already pretty dish.
The baumba, a small plate that sounded both festive and exuberant when explained to us by a portly Spaniard off the specials menu, was a ball of succulent shredded beef cheek insulated by smooth and fluffy mashed potatoes that was panko fried and smothered in a bright orange bravas aioli and a kind of sweet molasses-like jus. It was the archetypal flavour bomb-a, a dish that kept on giving with every forkful.
I had first ordered a portion of Iberico ham with some bread and oil, but changed it for a black rice special. I overheard a group of people bonding over it, a chain that started with a lady only just leaving, who professed it was her most favourite in the whole world. And what a bloody good dish it was! Short grain paella rice made creamy and dark with squid ink, is topped with an immaculate crisp-skinned, flaky-steamy-fresh portion of stone bass. Blobs of aioli are located on the fringes of the rice mound, contributing an outrageously sinful decadence to an already blasphemously delicious dish. I did in the end order a portion of bread (hot and crisp with seasoned olive oil) simply to mop up the remains of my baumba and black rice.
With still room in the tank, I called for a dish of chicken thighs in romesco, pretty and bright, a textural menagerie that sung of the Mediterranean and whispered sweet and savoury somethings to my taste buds. The dish highlighted the minute differences between the onomatopoeic allure of the crunchy chopped almonds, and the crackle epitomised by the skin of chicken so delicately and lovingly cooked.
I must have been in some orgiastic trance because on my way out, smiling and skipping to my tremendous gastronomic satisfaction, several people at the bar wanted to speak to me about the meal I had just had: these new people in queue asked what I’d ordered and what I liked, spurred on by the fact I had a camera around my neck and that my physiognomy gave away my state of utter bliss.
One lady, obviously well-meaning with an excited smile on her face, asked me if I did not miss Nieves’ cooking despite my evident satisfaction. Having not experienced it, I told her, I struggle to imagine a dining experience much better than the one I had just had. This is true, and has remained true since I left, for I cannot seem to get that meal out of my head. Maybe I was fortunate, and given the quintessential Barrafina experience, but I do think their continuing record of excellence speaks for itself.
So, if anyone is feeling a little put off by the departure of Barrafina’s celebrated chef, or are intimidated by the queues or the crowd within the restaurant, please do not be. This food here is enchanting, and worth the wait, the noise and all the other things that might have otherwise put you off.
Location: 26-27 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 3LL