I told you Barrica was good. Not all of us agreed two years ago, but we probably do now. After all, they’ve impressed enough of us to have a crack at a second child: Soho newest sensation called Copita, for sherry glass. I’m sure I recognised a couple of ex-Barrica staff who now work at Copita.
Looking back, it may have been because Barrica was yet another conventional tapas bar in face of the stiff competition. The Brindisas for example, the mighty Dehesa group, the supremely hot Barrafina, and that’s just along the spine of Shaftesbury Avenue. 2009 feels like such a long time ago. In the future (2011) , populist plate sharing still prevails, but we have matured past reserving tables or eat sitting down, we’ve put Sherry on the tube map, and small plates are no longer limited to Iberian classics.
How does the rest of the world think of the way we Londoners like to eat out, I wonder. We seem to enjoy the shift toward establishments that merge drinking and nibbling, we don’t mind queuing up, or even notice that new restaurants are cramming the same covers onto shrinking floorspace. Just when you thought the proverbial towel of shared plates has been well and truly wrung of juicy ideas, comes a new tapas bar with enough upgrades to set itself apart from the competition.
But first, let’s talk about the setting: cellar-like, almost dingy (without spiderwebs), there are no tables, but rather rows of table tops supported on ceramic tiled pillars with bar high stools. The reconstructed dilapidation is part of a recurring theme that has taken over this part of town. We, the restaurant goer love it, but there might also be widespread admiration amongst restauranteurs for Russ Norman’s vision of the ultimate Soho diner. These days you can almost count on new restaurants to be reservation-free with food that doesn’t mind looking tussled and just-whipped-up.
Bread with picos biscuits; squab pigeon, pear and chocolate; ajo blanco with beetroot; baked fig with goat’s curd ice cream and cod throat, clams and parsley. The menu is rotated daily, everything reads simply, but with a twist: date, pigeon and beetroot on a tapas menu – that is news to me. Therein lies the refreshing game changer, and here’s a disclaimer before we dive in to the dishes : Whatever you see here, zoom out by 200%. The dishes are sized for baby owls, seriously tiny, smaller than a bamboo steamer of shui mai, though prices are also appreciatively scaled down to match, starting from £3 and up to £8.
I sampled a range, in order of escalating prices.
Pea, fresh cheese and truffle oil croquets, £2.95.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking – this is nothing more than mushy peas, deep-fried with balls of cheese (which taste deceptively like a mozzarella). It was, but it was also bloody fantastic – such simplicity, utter genius. I didn’t think croquetas would ever evolve past bechamel and ham, but here, we may be witnessing the birth of the next deep-fried ball of sensation. Let’s all put the scotch eggs to one side, and start giving these baddies a chance instead.
Duck egg yolk with piquillo and hazelnut, £4.95.
..and I believe with a good lashing of orange juice! The fruity exuberance was wildly fascinating – was this Iberian I wondered, or was it much more than that. Where Jose Pizzaro would think a simple pan-fried duck egg, with a yolk still raw and runny would suffice, Copita takes this several steps further by slow-cooking the yolk to the consistency of a baked custard, a well curdled goat’s cheese, clotted cream that has set in a cold box. Garnished with crushed hazelnut and a bunch of other fresh and choppable things, piquillo pepper butterflied like a bedsheet and showered with presumably olive oil (and a fruit juice such as orange) – it was edible sex. What a refreshing dish this was. Talk about flexing those culinary muscles. This will definitely intrigue neighbouring tapas bar owners and could well go down as one of the best dishes ever created this year (in London).
Cod throat, clams and parsley, £6.95.
The experience of eating arguably the best tapas dish I had this year, was quickly superseded by the best tapas I had this year. The texture of the cod throat meat was fabulous, an oily muscle, almost gelatinous, like eating fish belly or fish eyeballs , or fish head meat, that came with rich palate arresting flavours of oil, garlic and unctuous fish fat (if there is such a thing). Throat was like cheek, except tenderer with much amped flavours of cod – as if it had been soaking in its own liver oil and had spent the night laying with a garoupa in the fridge. I also believe the dish came with a good dollop of puréed garlic too, but I couldn’t tell. The resultant textures were so babyfood-like that each spoonful was knockout punch after knockout punch. Kapow. Where the conventional tapas bar would have simply steamed clams and shrouded their nakedness with olive oil, Copita had taken it upon themselves to reinvent a classic bar snack into something worthy of record in the annals of culinary history. Cod throat rocks. I never want to go back to the fillet.
Iberico pork ribs, grelot and date sauce, £7.95.
And just when I thought they couldn’t top the cod throat, they surprise with this dastardly amazing homage to pit smoked ribs. Spanish style. You know the Spaniards had a hand in shaping pork smoking, look it up, American BBQ spoke latino at some point in its history. Meaty, gelatinious, muscles slowly pounded by smoke to a fall-off-the-bone consistency. And what in the hell is grelot? Who knows, whatever it was, it works, it has the x-factor. Date was less overbearing than honey, it resulted in a mellow, brown sugar roundness to the sweet bbq flavours, as opposed to a refined taste of monochromatic white sugar. These were a thinking man’s ribs. Bodeans nearby – be very afraid. Jamie and Adam… this is what good ribs taste like. Somebody pin a blue ribbon to this dish. The best pork ribs, I had had in London this year.
Custart tart, £2.50.
Or a slightly posher version of Nata from Nandos. Actually scratch that, no posher than Nandos, this is down and dirty stuff, like Nandos’ its kept on the bar as you enter. But it was definitely good Iberian custard, probably better than having to brave the danger of heading down to Casa Madeira in Vauxhall.
I’m really not a Sherry guy, too papery for me, but I get it, and recommendations to pairing sherry to the food is commendable. Not quite the flight of sherry you would get at Capote y Toros. So I settled with a tall Alhambra. £34.03 poorer, it wasn’t cheap, but I felt enlightened.
How many bread baskets do you know come with doggy style biscuits? Not many. And how many non-complimentary ones only cost a quid. Not many either. Fans of Jose (and probably Mr Pizzaro himself) really need to take a good long look at Copita. This tapas bar is next generation stuff, the flair in the cooking is superb – various sources suggest that the man with the plan is E.Chef James Knight. Well, whoever is behind the recipes, I tip my hat and applaud you – the cooking has verve and soul, the cooking is genial and poetic, the cooking is a reimagination of the small wonder of sampler portioned dishes. This is unadulterated pleasure for those who spend too much time paying for hospitality. Most of all however, the food is genuinely delicious.
And just like that, the world has changed once again.
Faster than you can say tapas. £33pp.
26-27 D’arblay Street W1F 8E
Tel: 0207 287 7797
Tube: Oxford Circus