One of the greatest culinary injustices of our times has been Spanish cuisine’s permanent “bridesmaid” relationship to its French equivalent. Oh sure, we all get along with tapas and foodies know only too well the major influences of three-star Iberian chefs such as Ferran Adria, Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena, the Roca brothers and Eneko Atxa.
But how many Spanish cookbooks currently grace your shelves? How many TV series have there been about the cuisine of Spain? How many Spanish restaurants do you know in your area?
So there’s more than a little imbalance going on here.
If, though, you’ve ever been lucky enough to drive around Spain’s different regions, you’ll know you’ll eat every bit as well as if you were over the border to the east, however remote the location and whichever income bracket you’re in. Even though you won’t be wallowing in as much dairy, you’ll be richly rewarded in plenty of other ways courtesy of superb meat, fish, seafood, fruit and vegetables cooked and served with seemingly unending amounts of passion, heart, soul and pride.
Few on this side of the Channel exemplify these qualities as well as chef Jose Pizarro, known to his legion of devoted fans as “The Godfather of Spanish Cuisine in the U.K.” – with at least one of our national newspaper restaurant critics elevating his croquetas (more of which later) to a quasi-religious experience.
Ask him about his homeland (he’s from the Extremadura region), cooking and ingredients, and you’ll be in for a fascinating discourse, soaked in that patriotic pride.
At Pizarro, one of his three London outposts, there is no “tweezer” presentation – this is proper, gutsy Spanish cooking with few, if any, concessions.
Inside, you may as well be in an authentic bodega. It’s all dark wood with an open kitchen and a small bar – the latter a perfect spot to perch while exploring an excellent selection of sherries and cavas to accompany a couple of Jose’s croquetas (£6.50) – those perfect cylinders of chilled bechamel sauce, spiked with prawns and/or ham, given a quick dip in breadcrumbs, then fried to golden crispiness. Crunch, melt, yum!
The menu changes quite regularly, but expect to start with such deceptively simple taste treats as top-quality Iberico ham (please don’t leave that border of silky yellow fat) (£14.00/£27.00), the so-simple-it’s-almost-ridiculous pan con tomate (£5.00), white vinegar-marinated anchovies (£8.00), artichoke with egg yolk and ham (£12.00), squidgy salt-spattered Padron peppers (£6.00), grilled octopus to make you forget you ever used the word “rubbery” to describe it (£15.00), citrus prawn fritters with pungent allioli (£10.00), or morcilla (blood pudding) with squid and confit garlic (£14.00).
It’s all too easy to do the tapas thing and stop there, and you certainly wouldn’t be wanting, but then you’d be missing the grilled veal loin with wild garlic and anchovy vinaigrette (£30.00), red mullet with confit garlic and citrus salad (£22.00), or the Castilian leg of suckling lamb with chickpeas and a red chile/garlic sauce (£32.00).
Spanish kitchens have never paid too much attention to pud’s, but Pizarro currently turns out a choice of a dreamy cream cheese ice cream with blackcurrant and camomile syrup (£6.00), or a chocolate pot with olive oil, salt and a gin mare biscuit (£6.00). And it would be a shame to ignore the Spanish cheese selection (£7.00/13.50), too – always a treat with its unfamiliar offerings.
As to the wine list, it’s happy to let you think no other country in the world but Spain ever grew or grows grapes, save for three French fizzes, and will take you all the way from £24.00 to £410.00, with many (although not the latter!) available by the glass or carafe, before choosing one of six of those wonderfully-caramely-y Spanish brandies.
Tell me more about Pizarro Restaurant
194 Bermondsey Street
Tel: 0207 378 9455