Barrafina: The trouble with tapas (yet again)

The Spaniards were well ahead of almost every other nation when it came to the concept of ‘sharing plates.’ The term tapas is indeed as ineluctably associated with the country as bull fighting or Sangria. Nowadays, bull fighting is, of course, considered distinctly cruel and unnecessary, and the same could arguably be said of the pairing of orange juice with red wine. Yet tapas lives on. And rightly so. Small dishes mean diners have the opportunity to sample a wide range of offerings and see the full extent of a chef’s talents. However, where are those talented chefs? Not in London. I have yet to sample tapas anywhere across the capital that comes close to what might be consistently available in even the most humble of Spanish establishments. Barrafina did little to change my impression. Sure, the décor of the venue (we dined at the Adelaide Street branch close to Covent Garden; there are three others) and its vibe were cool, but the quality of the food was notably inconsistent. Diners sit in full view of the chefs – this is performance cooking at its best – around a horseshoe-shaped counter in a glass-fronted and light space. If only the food, however, was as good as the performance. For every flash of culinary brilliance, there was also a disappointment. Pan con tomate (i.e. bread with crushed garlic, olive oil and tomato paste) is often a yardstick by which to judge Spanish venues and in this respect Barrafina did not disappoint. The bread was appropriately crunchy, the tomatoes juicy and intense with the flavour and blend of ingredients in balance. So far, so good. Plaudits also for the artichokes with aioli, which tasted as fresh as you could expect. Ditto for the anchovies. However, cuttlefish croquetas were instantly forgettable as were some greasily unpleasant butifarra (Catalonian sausages). Both more aptly belonged in the same era as Sangria. An inventive white wine blend from Galicia accompanied the tapas, but the red Tempranillo-Cabernet blend which was paired with our corn-fed chicken main failed as much as the food. Bland and unremarkable would be a succinct summary. There is so much that is good about Spanish cooking and the chefs clearly know what they are doing at Barrafina. Just a bit more consistency is necessary. If other cuisines can perform well across a spectrum of shared dishes (Japanese – both traditional and modern – being an exemplar), why does Spanish in London fail to do so? The challenge is there.