I'd never been to Notting Hill before. It exists in my mind as a weird amalgam of Hugh Grant and spangly breasted dancers. But the other day I found myself at Notting Hill Gate tube station, attempting to find the Westbourne Grove sibling of Mayfair's El Pirata known as El Pirata Detapas, which seeks to present a more modern take on Spanish food than its older sister.
I'd been invited to a tapas dinner to celebrate the launch of Viewcard (from Viewlondon - you know, that website you go to to find out what's on at the cinema now that Teletext is dead). Viewcard entitles you to special offers at lots of London restaurants and El Pirata Detapas is one of the latest to join the scheme. I'm going to call it EPD now because El Pirata Detapas is too long to keep typing out.
The road to EPD is paved with strange pretensions - I lost count of the number of shops along Pembridge Road advertising themselves as retro chic or vintage glamour when all they seemed to be touting was overpriced tat (although one enterprising merchant had a table of wares outside with an "Anything for a pound" sign on it). Westbourne Grove itself though is rather more upmarket and EPD seems to fit right in.
I met up with some other bloggers at a pub so achingly hip I've blanked it from my memory before proceeding to EPD where we were led downstairs to a beautifully lit room with a fantastic if slightly morbid display cabinet of jamon legs at one end.
As we sat down, little bowls of mixed, marinated olives were produced for us to pick at, as well as some fluffy, rustic bread and allioli so creamy I could feel it congealing in my arteries. In a good way.
It wasn't really allioli as you'd know it, lacking any kind of garlicky punch (in fact I had to go "Pssst - what the heck is this we're dipping the bread in?" to the others) but it was addictive nonetheless.
We were treated to a wide selection of tapas from almost every section of the menu - Ensaladas, Pescados, Croquetas, and Carnes (so much more mellifluous than Salad, Fish, Croquettes and Meat).
The 25 year old chef Omar Allibhoy trained under El Bulli's Ferran Adria and it shows. His take on Pulpo a la Gallega is Octopus carpaccio, clementine caviar, capers & paprika. This Galician dish is traditionally made with thick chunks of octopus which can be chewy, but here the octopus was sliced almost sashimi-style and then topped with capers, herbs and peppers and "caviar" of clementine juice.
Ah, spherification. I've always wanted to try "spherificated" food, and I imagined that the jewel-like globules would pop in my mouth releasing a pocket of zingy juice - a bit like ikura which they strongly resembled. Well, I was wrong. Or maybe they were wrong - but basically they were more like tiny, rubbery blobs with no discernable flavour. Pretty though.
The octopus itself was beautiful and tender, and the other garnishes imbued it with wonderful flavour. I stole everyone's leftovers.
We also had Endives with Valdeón cheese foam & walnuts. Valdeón is a blue-veined Spanish cheese; here it had been foamed up (more shades of El Bulli) with lashings of cream to form a miraculous cheesy air - somehow rich yet light at the same time. The chicory worked well with the cheese, its bitterness balancing the salt, yet unsurprisingly we were left with spare leaves as we fought to scoop up the foamy remnants.
Seared scallops, artichoke hearts & Iberian bacon were next. I lo-o-o-o-ve scallops although my husband says he still doesn't see the point.
These were perfect specimens - fat and meaty and seared till caramelised, they went beautifully with the crisp, salty bacon shards.
The croquetas with Serrano ham were less successful. An addition to my list of foods that look like Scotch Eggs, though the coating was good and crunchy, these were too blandly creamy inside with scant sign of the advertised ham.
But hey, we were enjoying ourselves and when I gave one of my share to a compadre, he was more than happy to relieve me of it.
I adored the next dish however. Pan fried red mullet, confit tomato & piquillo peppers - the fish was sweet and succulent, and the bed of tomato and peppers provided a spicy, tangy contrast.
The mullet was so very good, it was well worth the slight effort of picking out the little bones.
The lentil stew with foie gras was similarly glorious.
Unctuous and earthy with fat chunks of goose liver, comfort food at its very best.
Next we had pork cheeks, braised shallots & carrots.
The pork was incredibly tender, but this dish didn't quite gel for me and I thought I could detect an undercurrent of licorice or aniseed which I wasn't very keen on.
The Broken eggs, potatoes, chorizo & garlic prawns was a tortilla-like tower. Each component was juicily delicious, but the flavours fought with each other (there is such a thing as too much umami) and ultimately proved overwhelming - I was unable to eat more than a few mouthfuls.
Fried new potatoes with mojo picón sauce, EPD's take on patatas bravas, also failed to set my soul on fire (I have an aversion to cooked red peppers) and looked a little too much like rhino scrota for my liking.
We were back on a winning streak with the desserts however.
Chocolate trufa, chocolate mousse and saffron toffee was perhaps the most heavenly pud I have ever stuck in my mouth. Intensely chocolatey with a butter-like texture (but not at all cloying), I could have eaten six of these. Six.
The Two textures Crema Catalana was a close second - again Chef Allibhoy employed El Bulli techniques to whip the crema and us into a frothy frenzy.
On any other day, the final dessert Rice pudding with caramazel crispes (ie chocolate Rice Krispies) would have thrilled me, but pitted against the other two, its milky goodness paled in comparison.
And at the end of our orgy of eating, Chef Allibhoy himself came out to see us to talk about his influences. Obviously his training under Ferran Adria played a big part, but Allibhoy was first taught to cook Spanish cuisine by his mother at home in Madrid, and when he was 14 he even took evening classes at a local cookery school as well as undertaking his normal daytime studies.
Affable as well as charismatic with a surprisingly eloquent turn of phrase, he would be TV gold and for this reason I very much hope to see Allibhoy with his own cookery series.
He has already gone far with El Pirata Detapas, but I expect to see Allibhoy go further. You mark my words.
El Pirata Detapas
115 Westbourne Grove
020 7727 5000
The Viewcard costs £29.95 for a year's membership and offers 50% off at over 600 restaurants, pubs and bars - well worth a look in my book.
Thanks to the girls at Sauce Comms