Thursday, 14 March 2013

Restaurant Review: El Pirata

It is well known but easily forgotten that tapas originates from the Spanish word “tapar”, meaning to cover, and that they were originally used to cover drinks in bars so that flies couldn’t get in. Even as they have evolved, they are supposed to be something which is eaten to accompany a drink - usually sherry - and not the other way around.
Of course, that is not how we treat tapas in this country. Even top restaurants such as Barrafina and Fino who pride themselves on authenticity have Anglicised the way they’re eaten to more resemble a three course meal. What London’s best tapas places do manage to maintain, though, is the sense of informality and conviviality which are so important to the style of food.
With this in mind, the idea of a tapas restaurant in Mayfair rings alarm bells. These get louder thanks to a glance through the window at bright white tablecloths, but like a damp cloth to a smoke detector, the maitre d creates peaceful silence through a gesticulate-filled, hispanically warm welcome that would put any restrained English greeting to shame. The restaurant itself is anything but silent, which helps. Tables are full, close together and people chat at bar volume, rather than in hushed fine dining tones. A hearty buzz fills the space, giving a feeling of fun that not even the unwieldy sea of suits can make serious; aromatic waves of cooking shellfish, evaporating wine and braising garlic are as sunny and holiday-drenched as they come.
A selection of more than fifty tapas dishes is joined by a couple of set menus for those far too relaxed to choose, and at under £17 and £21 per head they’re refreshingly affordable for the area. If our bill adds up it’s only because we choose greedily. We start on deeply salty and meltingly unctuous pata negra ham, silky soft deep-fried monkfish pieces, and tender, meaty octopus chunks dressed in peppery young olive oil. A rice dish made with squid ink is a standout for the simple fact that it has restored my faith that this favourite Spanish dish can be executed well in our city. Unlike many a version where so little - or such poor quality - ink is used for it to provide anything more than black colour, this is fresh tasting, almost gelatinous and subtly but surely oceanic.
A vast wine list that’s entirely Spanish bar a few Champagnes backs up the food offering; a solid (though not massive) sherry selection is a particularly good bet for versatile wines that will suit a table filled with a wide selection of dishes. No, the food isn’t here just to accompany the drinks, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate using slices of precious ham to shield your wine glass from flies. But despite a tweaking of tradition, the spirit of Spanish tapas is well and truly alive at El Pirata. Yes, really, in Mayfair.

5-6 Down Street, W1J 7AQ
Tube: Green Park
Price: £££
Written by Ben Norum

Originally published in Scout London magazine

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