16.5/20. Two in one. Downstairs, better tapas than you find in most places in Andalusia, better fish than you find in Galicia. Upstairs, communal eating with meats and fish roasted in wood fired oven or braised in big copper pans. Both busy, bustling, brilliant.
One day: Heddon Street, a U bend just off Regent Street – lined with eateries – Sabor, a genuine, 22-carat diamond among paste – naked brick walls – wooden floor – speckled black marble counter – open kitchen – back wall bright with curlicued tiles – room bright with hustle, bustle, chatter, clatter, plates coming, plates going, chefs,, lunchers, munchers – Nieves Barragán Mohacho co-prop, drives the cooking team – ‘quietly forceful’ (thank you, Grace Dent) with serious eyes and a warm smile – José Etura, co-prop, marshalls the customers lined hugger-mugger on the other side of the counter – jackets slung over backs of chairs – hubbub, buzz, babble, Babel – leaning back to squint up at blackboards slung from the ceiling declaring the days’ specials: scallop carpaccio; sea bream (crossed off; finished), skate; empanadas de polpo – whirl of movement – flow of dishes – creamy, thistledown shrimp croquetas – ox tongue carpaccio, as thin as tissue – sardine fillets lapped in olive oil with slivers of fennel – grilled monkfish consommé – quail with chicory and Romesco sauce – bombas de tres chocolates, grossly indulgent – and so on and so on – dishes for sharing not for hoarding – the best, freshest ingredients, cooked sharply & accurately and put on a plate with a keen eye – chef carefully arranging shavings of scallop carpaccio – smarter, prettier, better than tapas in Seville or Madrid or Barcelona – chat, cheer, people are happy to be here – happier with wine, one glass, two glasses – energy of pleasure – food is a springboard for conversation, not the focus of it – (although people say ‘this is good’ ‘this is so good’ ‘I’m going to finish this’ ‘can I have the bread, please. I need to mop up these juices’ – bubbling with bonhomie – the dishes mount up – who cares? – I don’t as my friend is paying – this is the definition of cracking fast food – relaxed, cheerful, accessible, full of, full-on flavour – we finish, push back our stools, stand, put on our coats, and move off, still talking, talking, talking – another couple, older, already deep in conversation, slide on to take our places – and so it goes, 12 noon, 1pm, 2pm, 3 pm, through that evening as well.
Another day: Heddon Street, a U bend off Regent Street – El Asador upstairs at Sabor – at the top of a staircase like a corkscrew – Nieves is in command – hurray for that – long, high tables – high stools to sit on – 8 to 10 people per table – informal, communal eating – made for groups, parties, fun noise- not, definitely not, for quiet intimacy – already charged with conversations, debates, discussions, laughter – fall in with neighbours – brother, James, extols the virtues of Jeremy Corbyn – they look baffled – it turns out that one is a hedge fund manager and her friend, a venture capitalist – brother, Tom, and Mark, our friend, sit on the other side, deep in fishing & rugby – the three people at the end tell us to eat the oxtail – there’s suckling pig, too, in various sizes, a whole, a loaf, a quarter – and lamb chops and John Dory, all cooked in a big wood fired oven tucked away in a corner of the room – good bread – fluffy, crunchy pigs’ ears with alioli; and an ethereal pie of squid bits in squid ink; and roasted octopus; and a slice of morcilla, black pudding, with a soft, slippery, fruity slice of red pepper to start with – and a bottle of Fernando de Castilla fino en rama, unfiltered sherry, cold, clean, dry as a dentist’s mouth wash – and then a bottle of rollicking red, Albahara; and another bottle – the oxtail is dark and brooding and falls away from the bone – the lamb chops thin and Spanish not fat and British and have a heightened, grassy, malted flavour – and the skin on the suckling pig is as thin as a rime of ice on a lake, and deliriously crunchy, with sweet, fibrous, lustrous, luscious meat in dollops underneath – dishes for falling on, for sharing, for easy pleasure – time stretches out – the charming capitalists have gone – the ox tail evangelists have gone – but there are still longer lunchers at other tables, faces filled with content and conversation – pudding: cuajada de turron, a cross between pannacotta and creme brûlée – time for us to go – £85 a head, all in – was that three bottles of red? – whichever, what price happiness?