Boqueria – a Spanish restaurant in London to forget the cold with tapas
It was a dark, stormy (and possibly snowy) night…when I headed South to seek warmth and refuge against the bitter cold of the british winter in the form of Spanish tapas at Boqueria, a Spanish restaurant in London. This is the story of how a small-plates hater, a couple of non-foodies, and a East-end die hard, always cold girl (that would be me) made it to Brixton, ate a ton of tapas, got fairly drunk and didn’t regret making the trip. If it’s not as good as the real deal (Boqueria is “the” food market in Barcelona), at least it’s cheaper and closer and doesn’t require Ryanair inferno. ¡Que viva Boqueria!
If you’re in the UK right now, chances are it’s snowing, grey and freezing cold- Tube delays, trains from the suburb non-existent, Heathrow in shambles and the list goes on. In short, I guess what the British call with some understatement “utter misery”. Personally, I didn’t need the snow to feel quite strongly about the UK weather – mostly I loathe the lack of sunshine, the frosty mornings and the persistent feeling that the sky is a grey flat ceiling hovering too close to my head (also known in Italian “cielo basso, literally “low sky“). Yes I am the typical expat who complains against the weather and no, I have no intention of “go back home if you don’t like it” any time soon as someone suggested.
That said, I have learnt quite early that if you let the weather put you off, you won’t get much done in this country- no “not going out today, it’s raining/snowing/cold/drizzling” etc. (all perfectly valid excuses for flaking in warmer climates). Begrudgingly, I put on one of those shiny duffel full-length jackets you only see tourists wearing (my friends christened it “the Italian coat”) and brave the weather in search of warmth and comfort from…food and alcohol- although the concept of “beer jacket” is quite foreign to me, I can drink as much wine as I want and still be shivering!
So here I am, on a fairly drab Friday night in December, going all the way to Brixton – to me, living and breathing East London, that’s the equivalent of an intercontinental trip – to try Boqueria. I have seen good reviews of this spanish restaurant in London, got a kind invitation from their PR and my boyfriend has promised to come with me and not to moan about the distance, plus it’s officially the beginning of my Christmas holidays so I am feeling buoyant and ready to face the ordeal.
Interesting fish tapas- octopus and potato and surprisingly good friend calamari
BUT…what happens is that we just “pop by” at the Book Club t “say hi” to a couple of friends – and end up drinking too much and being massively late on our 7.30 reservation.
So we’re left (our fault, no doubt) with a combination of multiple obstacles to our original Boqueria plan – my loathing for late dining (not so Italian, I know), the fact that our friends decide to join us for dinner, and the fact that everybody is massively hungry- hence, when I announce the place I’m dragging them to is not just on the other side of town but ALSO a tapas bar, I am basically committing social suicide, especially as this couple is probably the only “non- foodie” friends we still have- they just want to fill their stomach and would do just nicely with any pub grub. Everybody complains about small plates (including my boyfriend, whom I had “forgot” to inform beforehand, covering the fact with a “it’s a Spanish restaurant”), silly prices, not much food, being pushed to order more etc. etc. In short, “Small plates can be pretty shit” as brilliantly exposed by Melissa Foodie. I almost cave in- I am not a lover of small plates myself.
But then I remember how drool-worthy the menu looked (yes I am talking about you, Jamon Iberico de Bellota) and stand my ground until the group, made more pliable by the promise of a decent booze list, follows me on what ends up being a not- so-long journey. Boqueria is not too far from both Clapham North and Brixton tube stations, and MAYBE I am wearing a bit of a wine jacket as I am not even that cold.
I was just hoping not to make my social suicide complete by bringing people to a disappointing place – one with trashy décor (cue bulls heads and corrida pictures and red tablecloths) and mediocre cold food. Well, to cut a long story short, none of this was the case at Boqueria.
The décor is sleek and minimalist, all dark wood and square shapes, warmed up by the occasional light touch. The big blackboard with the menu specials chalked up draw my attention immediately – make sure you check it out as some of the best dishes we ordered were from the specials. We were warmly received and seated to a spacious, well-lit table despite being very late (not something I would recommend to anyone, I hate being late- but I had phoned them to say we would be).
The main dining room, table mat menus and the specials blackboard- do check it out
Being so famished was actually an advantage as instead of the usual endless perusing and dissecting of the menu – imagine a very long one AND in Spanish- we pretty much pointed at a number of random things that sounded especially appealing. Our friends refused to consider anything with more than five words as a description and went for the failproof chorizo, croquettes and fried calamari (which can be pretty awful anyway, if badly made). I was swayed by more exotic options like Cochinillo (suckling pig) and two off-menu dishes- an octopus and potato concoction and some morcilla (black pudding)- in addition to the thing I had come to eat in the first place, the Jamon Iberico. As we were really afraid that we would still be hungry, we ordered two portions of paella to top it all off. Slightly dizzy from the previous drinks, we made the mistake of not properly looking at the impressive (now that I’m reading it off the website) wine, sherry and cava menu and ordered a random bottle of fizz which was a bit too sweet to go with the food- our fault no doubt.
My pictures won’t win me any prizes in the arts department here, but I think you can see for yourself how good the stuff looks. I was especially impressed by presentation, not something you’d expect from tapas, and from the carefully combined textures and flavours. The suckling pig was arranged in a sort of crispy biscuit- and served with parsnip, sweet potato chips, apple sauce& lemon sorbet – I thought it sounded gimmicky but it was actually very good, and a steal at £8.50 for a good portion. Octopus is always tricky- I often found it either so cooked you might be eating rubber, or still squidgy and slimy- at Boqueria it was nicely charred but still tender.
Simpler dishes were similarly satisfying and generally very good value, especially the humble “chorizo a la cidra”, with big chunks of porky smoky sausage made more balanced by the sourness of the cider.
More elaborate dishes like cochinillo asado and morcilla didn’t fail to impress
When the paella finally came we were feeling mostly full- but it was such a triumph of smell and colour that we couldn’t resist and scratched the paella dish clean. I am not a paella expert (my last experience with it is a very disappointing tourist restaurant in Barcellona last summer) but to me it was very good – al dente creamy rice with saffron and herbs rounding it off nicely and actual prawns, not just for decoration.
How did we manage to also scoff two desserts I am not entirely sure- I suspect the cava is to blame here – and whilst I can’t remember the almon cake too well, I do remember ordering a second crunchy, eggy, delicious crema catalana (shame on me) to the amused look of our waiter.
The kitchen staff posing for me
Also blame the cava on me trying to take pictures of the kitchen through the staff door! Luckily for me, the kitchen team was so kind they not only didn’t laugh at me but actually posed for a picture– after “making themselves presentable” (oh I LOVE the Spanish and their love of appearances!). They look more than presentable to me even now that I’m perfectly sober! And so does my night at Boqueria- a very nice surprise indeed. Far from being the run-of-the-mill, excuse-for-drinking type of food I feared, their tapas and small plates stand the test of a more robust (erm) appetite and of someone like me who wants some bang for their buck. The verdict? Don’t expect high cuisine or fine tapas- but definitely go for honest, good-quality small plates and a fun night of sharing fun with friends.
Too bad (for me) it’s far- but spring is coming and I am fairly sure that Brixton and Boqueria will see me more often when the weather gets better – if South (and nice weather and tasty Mediterranean food) doesn’t come to you, then you have to go South yourself…
Have you been to Boqueria? How do you feel it compares to the classics Jose’ and Brindisa? Do you know any good tapas in London?
Disclosure: I was invited to Boqueria by the management and we got a substantial discount on the meal.