Best friend in town? You just have to take them to one of the best restaurants in town and order three times your normal portion of food – and roll out of the restaurant with a six-month food baby hoping to ‘walk’ it off with a tube journey to the next.
So when my friend came down to London all the way from Durham (for a breather, she said), I got very excited, nearly as excited as those primary school days when I couldn’t sleep before a field trip, and started preparing for her visit. The key was coming up with a list of restaurants to take her to. This was easy with our matching standards for good food. And with a few hours of discussions, we narrowed it down to (drum-roll please): Barrafina!
Barrafina is a mini-chain of tapas bars serving modern, authentic, Spanish tapas. Landing its first site in Soho in 2007, it has gained a cult following of hungry customers, reflected by the hour-long queues every day outside its doors, pages of heated reviews and a Michelin star. With the opening of its second branch on Adelaide Street in 2014 and its third brand on Drury Lane in 2015, its growth has been unstoppable, even under its no-reservation policy all through the years. If people are still queuing up after ten-odd years, you have to admit this place must be good.
Under our anxiety issues and shared hatred of queues, we dragged ourselves out of bed bright and early on a Sunday morning, making it to the door of their Adelaide Street branch a quarter-hour before the lunch session started. We were among the first to queue – perhaps the wintry winds and the January drizzle were off-putting to some.
After 15 minutes of waiting in anticipation, we entered (or happily skipped) through the glass doors into a brightly-lit, stylish room, and took our seats on the retro-looking red stools around a marble-topped bar. On the bar was their menus, with their tapas section on the left and various alcoholic beverages on the right. We were also presented with a chalkboard menu with their daily specials.
Following the hours of research in the form of scrolling through Instagram, I chanted out our order to the waiter behind the bar like a sorcerer, watching him key in the names after a slight nod. Our dishes were made into a list, thoughtfully sectioned so they would be served in 2’s to a maximum of 3 at a time.
At Barrafina, all the waiters and chefs work behind the bar. We could see everything in action. I was amazed at how they worked in such an efficient, flawless, almost-relaxed manner despite the small space and during the busy lunch hour: waiters taking orders, serving food, chefs working at their respective stations.
Our first dish came as swiftly as the wind outside: a bite-sized fried oyster served on an oyster shell with a lime and chilli salsa. The hot, sweet, salty juices from the oyster burst through the crunchy tempura skin in the mouth. Next was the padron peppers – a staple dish at any tapas restaurant. These peppers came as a plate of bright green lanterns, gently fried and seasoned with sea salt. It wasn’t greasy at all, and surprisingly sweet. Ending our first ‘course’ was their signature crab croquetas – a pair of deep fried, golden brown crab balls with a creamy filling. We let our taste buds savour the after-taste of the starters before our special order arrived: the carabineros prawn. This palm-sized prawn was in a deep red colour, still smoking hot from the pan. We took care, nearly burning the tips of our fingers, ripped off the head, sucked out the glorious juices, and greedily savoured the tender meat. It was a splurge for the wallet but a luxury for the senses.
The arroz de marisco landed on the table as we were licking the prawn juices off our fingers. Reminiscent of the traditional paella, the rice was like a mountain of gold nuggets with mussels, clams and squid studded amongst it. The rice exploded with the essence of the sea. The stuffed courgette flower was a bit of a controversial dish between us. The flower, with the petals and the stalk, was the length of my hand, stuffed with goat’s cheese and lightly fried. It was almost like a dessert. The stalk was slightly sweet, the creamy, distinct flavours of the goat’s cheese cut through, assisted by a drizzle of honey. If you love goat’s cheese, you will fall in love with this dish.
Our last savoury order, the classic tortilla, arrived as a circular, inch-thick cake, created under the watchful eye of the chef who was constantly flipping the tortilla and testing the temperature with his hand. I understood the amount of care that was put into this dish as the golden yellow juices flowed out from the centre as we cut it in half – the egg was cooked to retain a slight liquidity, encasing the flavourful onion broth inside.
It would be a crime to leave Barrafina without tasting their signature dessert – the milhojas. We added this to the list even knowing our food baby was entering the second trimester. The milhojas looked like a French millefeuille, but much better: two slices of airy, crispy puff pastry sandwiching a light vanilla cream and rich, indulgent, spiked custard. The combination of flavours and textures was miraculous.
Eight dishes, two girls with two food babies on a Sunday afternoon. What could be better?