This latest opening from the mighty Barrafina group is a little different: the brainchild of executive chef Angel Zapata Martin, the idea is that diners do some of the work of the kitchen, using mini charcoal grills – or parillas – to cook the meat or veg themselves. And then pay for it. Whatever next?
But first, a word on its unparalleled location. The leafy west-facing Mediterranean dining terrace overlooks the Regent’s Canal and increasingly bucolic Gasholder Park: with its stone floor, marble tables, sturdy chairs and banquettes, it feels like it’s been there forever.
All around is an urban garden of mature olive trees and fragrant herbs, a rather paradisaical backdrop to a sunny early evening dinner. Here’s what we discovered after our visit:
1. Eat off-peak
We booked a table at an early-doors 530pm on a blue-sky Tuesday, which felt rather eager, but by 6pm long queues had formed. Once in, take note of two distinct sections: to use the parillas you need to be in the covered area, while the breezier open-air terrace is para picar (small plates) only.
2. Order pan con tomate
Barrafina regulars will know it’s some of the finest anywhere: jam-red, tangy and smooth. We’d heard it was DIY here, with diners assembling their own from slabs of toasted sourdough, but ours is already made. Also on a tomato tip, don’t miss a cold shot of salmorejo, the bright orange soup made with sherry vinegar, olive oil and garlic.
3. It’s all about Iberica
Iberica de Bellota pork comes from free-range, acorn-fed pigs who live something of a charmed life, comparatively at least. Presa means ‘little loin’ and a plate of this well-marbled ham (in the para picar section) balances its strong taste with delicate texture. Equally good is the Pluma Iberica – end loin – for the parilla (see below), which grills best medium-rare, rosy within.
4. Listen to the rules of the parilla
Ah yes the parilla! After the small plates, the table-top grill is wheeled out. The server talks us through how to cook the meat and alter the temperature: no more than a minute on each side, she warns, for both our pork and 50-day aged beef picanha (rump) as it’s sliced so purposefully thin. My concern is that such skinny cuts might not thwack our tastebuds with enough moistness, or flavour: but, placed on the sizzling grill, then tonged, flipped and rested, they don’t disappoint. Our steak’s juicy succulence is ramped up a notch courtesy of the four sauces: a grassy mojo verde, its spicy red variation, a salsa ibizenca – with almonds, brandy and cream – and a nutty romesco.
5. Rave about red prawns
Carabineros – Spanish red prawns – are renowned for their jumbo size and deep crimson carapace, which, unlike regular crustaceans, don’t change colour when cooked. While the large ones cost £15 a pop, smaller ones are priced here at £3.50 each. And they only need a few seconds each side on the parilla: do not, repeat do not overcook.
6. The sides rock
A salad of white asparagus with pine nuts, watercress, leaves and a grassy olive oil is a cunning foil for the richer flavours. And for a carb-laden hit try patatas panadera, sautéed with onions, thyme and wine (and a grilled pepper or two chucked in for good measure).
7. Do not skip dessert
Service is friendly throughout, but our server plays down the two pudding options. My sweet-toothed pal is having none of it and orders both: a house tart, made using artisanal cheese, and drizzled with honey and nuts, is just outshone by a delicious vanilla pod-heavy ice cream, with biscuit crumb for textural interest.
8. Drink Verdejo
Wine starts at £28 a bottle: the Cuatro Rayas 2017, a crisp, light verdejo, comes in at £37 and hits exactly the right notes for a summer terrace. For a red, try the deep-ruby Navarra-grown Vina Zorzal Graciano (also available by the glass), good with steak.
9. Finish with an orujo
This pomace brandy – obtained from the distillation of the solid remains left after pressing of the grape – is from northern Spain, a transparent spirit with an alcohol content at over 50%. And it makes an eye-watering digestif once the grill has been whisked away. Trust us.
10. The verdict
With the skilled chefs in the kitchen, I was initially sceptical about the gimmick of grilling ourselves; after all, it’s never going to taste as good as it would by a trained pro. And yet this experience is memorable and fun, whether with a partner, a gang or a first date (my single mate assured me it’ll be a key ice-breaker on his future romantic rendezvous). And if your dinner does indeed go up in flames? Well – eye roll – there’s always Barrafina proper next door.