Although the first Barrafina opened relatively recently in 2007, it is already considered to be an esteemed veteran of the London food scene. The original Frith Street branch has since been awarded a Michelin star and its two sister restaurants have received glowing reviews from major publications. Yet, as a relative newcomer to the city, I hope to see it with fresh eyes. From my position in London’s most accommodating queue, with a glass of excellent El Circo wine, it certainly looks promising.
As we wait, they bring us ham croquetas whose rough, golden breadcrumbs encase molten cheese studded with nuggets of ham. There is no cutlery, for this is food designed to be eaten with your hands. “It’s not very refined, is it?” comments my companion as he happily licks stray cheese from his chin. But it’s this informality that makes Barrafina brilliant: the frenetic energy of its waiters, the open kitchen squeezed full of indefatigable chefs, diners perched on bar stools, food eaten with fingers instead of forks.
Once seated, we feast on prawns in a rich garlic-infused oil, which is brightened on the palate by a smattering of sweet chilli and fresh herbs. The accompanying finger bowls indicate that, again, we should eat with our hands. Evidently, customers are encouraged to touch, smell and truly savour their food before tasting it. This relaxed approach to dining certainly seems fitting for a tapas restaurant, Michelin star or no.
It is with regret that we concede the necessity of cutlery for a jamon and spinach tortilla, whose slightly too squelchy centre is saved by a perfectly crispy potato shell. Much better are chicken thighs with romesco: tender meat and crisp skin marries harmoniously with the deep, sweet, nutty red pepper sauce and the gentle spike of a herb and onion salsa. We pile our forks high with chicken and a side of chard, kale and cauliflower, the slight bitterness of which provides the perfect foil for the rich meat.
Before they clear our plates, I can’t resist swiping a finger through the last dregs of that irresistable romesco sauce. After all, I should make the most of finding a prestigious restaurant that actually applauds a more relaxed approach to table manners.