When I heard that Barrafina, one of my favourite places to while away a few hours, was opening a second branch I was immediately excited. I checked their Twitter page obsessively, wondering when they'd bloody well open dammit. Weeks went by and then, suddenly, they were open with a bang. Pictures flooded my Instagram feed and I stared longingly at images of those famously expensive Carabinieros - massive red prawns, often at £20 a pop. Yep, each. £20 for a prawn. But if it isn't the best freaking prawn you've ever eaten, then you need to tell me where you had one better.
Back to the beginning. The original Barrafina, a Soho stalwart, is a busy place. If you don't get there at opening hours you're facing down a queue of 45 minutes to an hour and a half for one of those coveted 23 seats at the bar. I don't begrudge them the time; after all, you can have a beer and a croquetas or two while you wait. I've never had tapas as good in Spain. I had high hopes for the new place. I had fears that with expansion, the quality would drop.
I needn't have worried. On the day Marina O'Loughlin raved about the new branch, I rushed over there for lunch, happily surprised to nab the last two stools at 1pm on a Saturday. The polished bar snakes around the corner, and the space is bright and airy. The croquetas (£4.50 for 2), updated with crab instead of the usual jamon, were textbook; creamy, crabby and impossibly mousse-like insides and a crisp coating. They're the kind of things you bite into and then wish everyone would just be quiet for a moment while you savour the skill needed to make them and the flavour within them. I'm a fan of the new zushed-up versions.
Chiperones (£7) (little baby squid) were expertly battered and deep fried. A good squirt of lemon was needed to cut through the friedness of it all, and they became infinitely better when scooped up with plenty of chopped almost raw garlic and parsley. Make sure your date eats some too to avoid a one-way garlic-filled snog.
Chicken wings (£6.50) were grilled on the now-ubiquitous Josper grill that gives them that trademark smokiness, and then smothered with mojo picon sauce. Traditionally, its made with red peppers, paprika and sherry vinegar; a little spiciness, a little sweetness. I was amused to see my neighbours eating these politely with a knife and fork. We showed no such restraint.
On my last trip to Spain, I discovered the magic of sherry vinegar. The tomato, fennel and avocado salad originally raised an eyebrow at its £7 price tag but it was worth every single penny. Beef heart tomatoes lay at the base, topped with sliced smaller tomatoes and quartered blood-red cherry tomatoes. These were as tomatoey as you'll find, sweet and juicy. We wondered if the fennel would work with the avocado, and of course it did. But it's the memory of the dressing that makes my mouth water. Grassy olive oil, perfectly balanced with the sweet depth of sherry vinegar. I could drink it. I might have drank it.
Salmorejo was another thing I discovered in Seville. It's like gazpacho, but creamier, milder, sweeter. Originally from Cordoba, it contains more bread than gazpacho, which gives it its creaminess. Here, chicory topped with meaty anchovies makes it one of the best damn vegetable-ish dishes I've had recently (though I'd hope so, for £8.80). Salty anchovies, sweet Salmorejo and bitter leaves combined balance out beautifully.
We couldn't resist ordering this little bocadillo (£7.50); seared, naked squid in a lightly toasted bun, smeared with confit'ed onions. There's no sexy way of eating this and it's likely that your fist bite will pull some tentacles out of its bready home, leaving them dangling to your chin. I worried that, like many crusty French baguettes, it would take the roof of my mouth off, but the freshness of the bun prevented it from doing so. It was the shoestring-esque fries that got me, with their salty, crisp goodness. I told the waiter off for taking them away from me before I'd devoured them all.
It could have been over-consumption, but I was less enthused about the grilled skate wing with black olives and pine nuts from the Specials menu. The fish was cooked well, but I found the mashed up black olives a bit... samey samey. A bit one-note.
Nevertheless, it's safe to say I loved the new Barrafina. Of course I loved it. I had no doubt that I would. The service was spot-on, as per Frith Street; friendly and unobtrusive. Sure, its not cheap - we spent £40 a head, but actually for food at that standard, with a glass of sherry and two glasses of wine each, I actually felt it was really good value. Spanish food is often about great quality ingredients treated well and these don't come at your typical pound-a-bowl market stall. We didn't go for any of the heavy-hitters - a plate of Iberico jamon, for example, will set you back £18 - but order carefully and the bill won't be too much of a nasty shock. Then again, who wants to order carefully? Next time I'm going for a jamon-crazed bender. There are Iberico pork ribs on the menu!
No reservations. Obvs.